Prison Chief Julie Jones Interview Part 2: Talks Legal Challenges, Her Direction For Agency

Apr 29, 2016

In the last of a two-part series, WFSU's Sascha Cordner continues the conversation with Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who has been in her role for more than a year. We’ll hear more about what direction she’d like the prison agency to take, what’s in store for some of her employees, and her take on certain legal challenges affecting the agency.

Last week, we aired Part 1 of our conversation. Listen below to Part 2, which aired on Friday's Capital Report.

SASCHA CORDNER: So, you just began transitioning to a new prison health provider to replace Corizon Health, who pulled out last year. It covers most of the state’s inmate medical care. How is that going so far?

SECRETARY JONES: It’s actually phenomenal what Centurion has been able to do in a short period of time. The goal is to transfer all 41 of the facilities by the end of May, and they’re well on their way to hiring existing Corizon employees.

But, also they are a nationwide company and they’re looking nationally to backfill with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, and psychologists and those last two are key to stabilizing the inmate population and giving us a chance at rehabilitating an inmate.

Just off of that, I know an administrative law judge just rejected the other prison health provider Wexford’s challenge to Centurion coming in. But, are you guys still working well with Wexford right now?

We have a solid relationship with Wexford. From a corporate standpoint, Wexford has to do everything that they can to affect their bottomline, and make sure that they position the company well, and I don’t take any offense to that.

We were able to get Wexford a cost of living increase. So, they’re going to get a little bit of a pay increase this year for the increased services that we’ve asked them to do for us and the increase in costs in medicine and basic supplies. So, Wexford and the Department are doing just fine.

Speaking of challenges, I know that the Teamsters Union—which represents thousands of correctional officers—has an upcoming legal challenge, stating that your agency can fire correctional officers without justification. Do you have anything to say to that?

Well, all we’re doing is following state law. And, the Teamsters tried to negotiate something that is in state law out to give themselves an exemption. But, quite frankly, to say that ‘an individual that promotes does not go back on probation, relative to their ability to do that new job’ doesn’t make any sense to me because some people are really good at being a corrections officer and maybe might not be a very good supervisor and we want to keep that individual, but let them be a corrections officer again if they can’t make the grade as a supervisor. To totally exempt that individual from scrutiny in a probationary period on promotion, I think was unreasonable. And, so, what the legislature did was agree with the department, but more succinctly, the legislature said ‘follow state statute.’

So, in the past, your agency started releasing correctional officer arrests regarding contraband, inmate abuse. But, it looks like you’re now releasing inmate-on-prison guard assaults as well?

We are. And, it’s something that we used to do years ago. But, I think when we talk about how difficult the job is, how stressful, how dangerous, why wouldn’t we also talk about the human toll on our staff and what we’re doing to change the environment for our staff and the inmate? And, to do that, we’re not highlighting it, but we are posting these incidents.

So, again, in an era of the department being transparent, I think it’s important that the public knows all sides to what is the correctional story. And, this is a dangerous, difficult job and I want to make sure that we’re doing right by our officers.

And, you just attended the Criminal Justice Reform Colloquium at Yale University, where you were joined by many criminal justice experts?

Yes!

Can you talk a little bit about how that was? Why did you go? What did you talk about?

Right now, prison reform, Prison Justice reform is happening…these discussions are happening all over the country. It has a lot to do with death penalty, no death penalty, it has to do with segregated housing, the use of solitary confinement, which we don’t use that term in Florida. But, we do have a small, very small cohort of people that are very dangerous.

But, the discussion how best to interact with an inmate in that difficult situation and not just lock them up, but give them the tools in that segregated situation when they’re by themselves to begin to modify their behavior and give them a chance to get out of there, and not just lock them up and not give them any services.

Florida doesn’t do that, but again, I want to know what the national dialogue is and I want to be able to be ready with information on what we do, how we do it, and if there’s an idea out there that we should be embracing, what better way to do it than to sit down with the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], sit down with people that are looking at all angles beyond just the crime and punishment piece, but the special aspect of incarceration, so I know where the future leads and I can properly position the department.

You’ve run this agency for more than a year now. So, what are some of the highlights? What are your challenges even moving forward? Looking ahead?

I had the pleasure of meeting with all the wardens and with all of our chiefs, which are majors and colonels. And, these are the leaders of tomorrow, and I’m challenging them to think about what we look like, five years from now, ten years from now…especially the majors and the colonels because they’re the ones that are going to be here. I probably won’t be here in ten years. I will be happily retired somewhere, I hope.

Getting them to step up and to engage, I use a term that’s called ‘Loyal Opposition and then Unity of Command.’ Getting my boots on the ground supervisors to acknowledge, not only they’re responsibility, but giving them some authority in their environment to affect change and then be able to intercede with an officer, with an inmate and make a change. And, I’m talking positive change. I’m not talking punitive, because a lot of what we’re talking about now in open discussion is how to use incentives with inmates and to incentivize behavior. And, so, it’s the carrot-stick idea.

And, I have been extremely pleased with the interaction. Our employees are motivated. They’re excited! And, when I took this job, I was very concerned that we pushed for change, but ot for change sake, and we’re doing things for the right reasons and we justify what we do.

Take segregation, for example. If an inmate attacks a corrections officer or attacks another inmate, we obviously have to segregate that individual and we have policies and procedures to do that. But, if you act out or push somebody, if you are disrespectful, if you use negative language, maybe we don’t necessarily put that person in confinement.

We’re looking at tablets to encourage education. We’re looking at transition programs: Thinking for a Change. And, so incentivizing behavior, as opposed to using just strictly disciple, we have individuals coming up through the chain of command with ideas, like there’s no tomorrow. It’s exciting! And, it’s an exciting time.

And, I’m very good at what I do in a leadership role and in talking to the legislature. A year ago, I probably told you I know nothing about prisons and I don’t anything about running a prison. But, I don’t need to. I know a lot of people, and they’re good at it. It’s getting them motivated and giving them the authority to make change and reshape what we look like and that’s what we’re doing because we are doing a lot of good things.

And, it’s not the old DOC, and we changed the name and we’ve changed the uniform to motivate people to think about how do this differently because 87 percent of the inmates that come into our custody go back to community. And, I think it’s our job, this agency’s job, the employees’ job to think about how best to motivate that individual not to stay alive in the prison system, but to make it be a better person, be motivated to go back to community. And, that’s an exciting time. It’s an exciting time for us.

Alright, well, thank you for being here.

Thank you. Thank you for coming.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.