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Prison Chief Jones Talks Top Budget Priorities, Rebranding Troubled Agency's Image

Florida Department of Corrections

Florida’s troubled prison system is going through a bit of a revamp, as it also seeks to retain its correctional officers. As part of the Secretary’s latest endeavor, she’s trying to give the agency a new mission as well as a new logo.

During the first few days after Florida lawmakers returned to the state Capitol, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones made the rounds to committees in both the House and Senate.

Among the issues she talked about were her legislative budget requests.

While she didn’t give a specific number, she did outline some of her priorities.

“When we give out LBR [legislative budget request] for this year, it’s a big number,” said Jones. “I’ll warn you now. But, we’ve calculated the result of investing in our infrastructure and how it relates to 10 percent reduction in energy cost and maintenance cost overtime.”

The funding requests will include money for vehicles as well as funds for maintenance, like roof repairs—which Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-Pasadena) agrees the prison agency needs.

“I’ve actually been touring some prisons this Summer,” said Peters, during a House Justice Budget panel meeting. “So, it’s been very enlightening. And, I’ve taken a look at some of the [fixed] capital expenses that were highlighted by corrections. And, I can tell you it’s something that I think we need to really look very hard at. One of the facilities I was at—I have very severe allergies—and I very nearly ended up in the emergency room just in their administrative building. So, I think there are some serious things that we have to look at.”

Not only is Jones trying to spruce up the outer appearance of the buildings, she’s also trying to fix the image of the prison system as a whole. It’s been plagued by inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, as well as cover ups.

Now, Jones says she has a new vision for her agency. She calls it, “Inspiring success by transforming one life at a time.”

It also comes with a new logo and changing references to the department known as the “DOC” to now be called the “FDC.” But, some lawmakers question this new direction.

“And, I’m just wondering why we’re doing that and what the costs are since we really haven’t finished rebranding from the inside,” asked Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville).

But, Jones says rebranding from the inside includes how the agency is perceived on the outside.

“So, I know my corrections officers and my corrections probation staff and my administrative staff are all professionals, but they’re not perceived as such,” she responded. “So, when people start to think about the Department of Corrections, FDC—the Florida Department of Corrections—that they’re thinking about this new agency that is positively focused and has an absolutely different outlook on life, relative to what our job is, which is transformative rehabilitation of our inmates and support of our employees and not this old branding that has perceived us to be negative, over use of force. So, it’s the whole package, Senator, and the cost is minimal.”

She says as part of this new mission to also create a safe environment for inmates as well as correctional employees, she’s now working on strategies on how better to retain the staff that they’ve worked hard to train.

“Since February, the Department has hired 2,200 new employees,” said Jones. “That’s a net gain of 800 corrections officers and 71 corrections community staff. And, it seems like a big number with a big net gain. We lose about 100 a month and we hire maybe 50 or 75, and it’s a continuous churn.”

Jones says although they’ve hired a lot of employees, she’s quickly losing them to local law enforcement agencies. For example, almost 70 percent of the officers at Dade Correctional have less than two years on the job.

And, Kim Schultz says it’s understandable, since the pay is not so great. She’s a probation officer in North Miami Beach, who’s worked in her profession for 19 years.

“I’ve been here a very long time,” said Schultz. “I’m getting closer to retirement. So, I’m not leaving. But, for the people who aren’t at that point, it’s easier for them to go.”

She adds while Jones is doing good work in trying to reform the agency, until there’s better pay, correctional officers have no incentive to stay.

“There’s a wage disparity also when you look at an entry level for probation officer and like a first-line supervisor, middle management,” Schultz continued. “And, in our agency, let’s say the entry level is $30,000, the first-line supervisor is $32,000, and middle management supervisor is $34,000. And, when you look at an agency like FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement], the entry level is $45,000, the first-line supervisor is $60,000, and middle management is $87,000. So, even, when we get promoted, the increase in our pay isn’t that significant.”

And, Jones says it’s something she wants to look into as the 2016 session draws near.

“I think we need to talk very diligently with the legislature and the Governor’s office for some adjustments, especially associated with higher risk areas and areas where we are losing employees,” said Jones.

As for her boss, Governor Rick Scott says he’s confident in the person he hired to run the Corrections agency.

“Oh gosh, Julie Jones is doing a great job,” said Scott, speaking recently to reporters. “She did a great job at Highway Safety. And, she’s doing a very good job at the Department of Corrections. She is going to continue to hold individuals accountable. She’s going to be doing the right thing.”

He says that includes enforcement of her “zero tolerance” policy for misconduct of correctional officers. Since May, Jones says more than 300 people have been terminated for things, like excessive use of forceand smuggling contraband into prisons.

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.