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New DOC Secretary Jones Very Candid With Lawmakers On Prison System Troubles

Florida Channel

Lawmakers are hoping the newly appointed head of Florida’s prison system can clean up the troubled agency plagued with suspicious deaths and allegations of inmate abuse.

Julie Jones, the fourth permanent Florida Department of Corrections Secretary under Governor Rick Scott, has only been in her post for a couple weeks. But she says she’s ready to make some changes.

And, Jones says it starts with building on some of the reforms her predecessor Mike Crews had started to address the culture of alleged abuse by prison guards.

“When I took over, I took over a set of ongoing reforms done by Secretary Crews,” said Jones. “He began this building process by initiating some unprecedented assessments to the agency’s culture and enacted a zero-tolerance mantra against misconduct. So, the Governor tasked me with the mission to reform the culture of this agency and in his words, ’fix what needs to be fixed.’ So, my current emphasis is a balanced and fiscally responsible budget. This is the next critical step to ensuring the success of this department.”

So, Jones says she’s seeking more than $30 million to fill needed staffing positions. She’s also looking into rotating prison guards’ shifts as part of ongoing efforts to change some of the culture at the department and has instituted anonymous assessments that started this week in Dade County.

“I’m sending a team out to each core group of facilities to do one-on-one interviews and anonymous assessments because there’s keypads and computers that you can sit down and answer questions that are totally anonymous to start to get to the cultural piece so I can drill down and go to institutions and ask specific questions that are relative that is going on at that particular facility as opposed to visiting and doing the same stump speech to 49 different facilities,” added Jones.

Talking to Senate Criminal Justice Committee members Tuesday, Jones also gave candid answers.

For example, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) asked whether it’s true private prison providers choose cheaper, healthier inmates for their facilities and leave the more expensive ones at state-run facilities. It’s a question most Secretaries in the past have said “no” to, including Bradley said, Secretary Mike Crews.

“He [Crews] said the private facilities do not cherry pick because I asked that specific question of him, and that’s what he told me. You’re giving me a different answer that the privates get all the easy ones and you [the state-run facilities] get all the bad ones,” asked Bradley.

“Yes, sir. That is my belief,” replied Jones.

“That’s your belief. Okay. We need to explore that then because I asked him that specific question and he said no,” continued Bradley.

Chairman (R-Baker) Greg Evers also asked about the standard of health care at the prison facilities, which are under two private prison health care providers, Wexford and Corizon.

“The standard of healthcare with our current providers is not at the level that’s required by their contracts, and we’re working very diligently with those two vendors to try to get the standard of care up to the level that’s required in those contracts,” said Jones, replying to Evers.

Since she did not finish Tuesday's presentation, Jones is expected to make another appearance at the committee’s next meeting. Lawmakers also requested DOC’s Inspector General Jeff Beasley to come along. Based on several media reports, he’s accused of covering up some of the probes into alleged abuse by prison guards.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.