© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Prison Chief Julie Jones Interview Part 1: Talks Legislative Highs, Lows, New Hiring Push

Sascha Cordner
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

WFSU's Sascha Cordner sat down with Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who has been in her role for more than a year now. Previously, she led the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. She’s now the fourth Prison Chief appointed by Governor Rick Scott as well as the first female to have the role. She’s taken over a troubled agency and is in the process of continuing to implement prison reforms as well as find ways to continue to change her agency’s image.

Hear Part 1 of our conversation below. Stay tuned to next week's Capital Report to hear Part 2.

SASCHA CORDNER: So, I’m here with Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. Welcome to our Capital Report program.

SECRETARY JONES: Thank you for having me!

Now, we just came fresh of a legislative session. How do you think the department fared? What were some of the highlights for you? I know there was at least one bill: HB 1149 regarding the alternative sanctioning program?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last year about prison reform. And, so, the Department’s first attempt at looking at reforming who comes to prison was our alternative sentencing bill, which passed.

We’re very proud of the bill. We think it’s going to be an important move to start reduce technical violations for probationers coming back to prison, keep them in community where they can continue to get a job, have a paycheck, pay victim restitution, pack back the cost to the court, be with their families, and be closer to the endgame for them to keep them in community and keep them from violating again.

But, I’m looking forward to working with Senator [Jeff] Brandes. He is very interested in sentencing reform and I think he is going to be very instrumental in the next two years, looking at the age and health of prisoners, how long they stay in the system, who should actually come to prison. And, who is better served being left in community under supervision or say a higher level of community supervision that might include electronic monitoring.

But, again keeping people in community and trying to teach them to be better citizens as opposed to putting them in the prisoner population. But, what goes along with sentencing reform is making sure we’re doing right by the people who do come to prison.

So, House Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran made some comments at the end of the legislative session that you need to figure out a way to downsize your agency. He said, “Having 100,000 is unmanageable for anybody, any place, any time.” What did you think about his comments?

Well, I think typically if you looked at years past, the Department is again considered the warehouse for an inmate. And, the actual sentencing decisions—the department has not weighed in on any of that.

So, I took it as very positively that the incoming Speaker wanted the Department’s opinion, not so much for us to sponsor legislation, but to weigh in on what we think from our experience with inmates in the system the best way to tackle some of this.

There’s going to be a lot of stakeholder involvement. There’s going to be a lot of discussion on sentencing reform and it’s going be a lot of consensus building before something dramatic happens. And, I think the Speaker understands that.

Going back to how you fared this session, what were some the regrets, and I guess the most obvious one would be that you didn’t get as many correctional officers as you wanted because by session’s end, you wanted 734 and you got 215.

I’ll take the blame for that on myself, because I originally asked relative to staffing for 472 positions for relief factor, which is the first part of a three-year phased approach to bring in officers to make sure that we’re fully staffed with all our critical positions and our higher level positions 24-7, 365 days a year. And, that means having positions to backfill when officers are on vacation, sick leave, military leave.

But, it dawned on me after the Governor approved my initial budget and we talked to the legislature, that in order to fix the system we needed to go back to 8-hour shifts first and then overlay the relief factor on that. So, I changed gears mid-stream.

And, the Department has a lot of stakeholders. There’s a lot of distrust because we’ve not been transparent, and we’re trying really, really hard to address our image and how we interact with our constituents and the legislature.

So, I probably zigged and zagged a little bit too quickly in the middle of session and didn’t bring all of my stakeholders with me. So, we’re going to work on that this summer, work with the legislature, continue to rely on third parties to give us information relative to the staffing and what our staffing should be…

So, yes, I was disappointed. But, we’re going to continue to not only to educate my stakeholders, but also our employees.

And, one of the issues that the legislature was listening to was the employees’ concern about going back to 8 hours, overtime, the shift schedules. So, we have a committee that is working on this to get some buy-in from them as well so they understand where we were going and why.

I have to prioritize what my budget requests are because there isn’t enough money in the world to fix the Department in one year. That’s why I have a five-year plan.

And, so, disappointment isn’t the right word. We did really well, relative to 15 million for fixed cap. We have now a recurring budget for vehicles. We got 215 FTE. So, those are all wins.

And, when you’re talking about FTEs, you’re referring to Full-Time Employees. So you just talked about having a five year plan. Does your push for 4,000 correctional officers factor into that at all?

One of the questions that the legislature with my FTE requests: ‘We’d like you to get your vacancies down before you ask for more FTE.’

So, our hiring push is in response to that skepticism on the part of legislators this past session. So, we are going to hire 4,000 people this year. But, that’s going to take care of the people that are exiting for retirement, from DROP. Those are the people that don’t make it through the training process. Those are the people who leave for other jobs, leave for better paying jobs.

So, this constant churn and turnover. We’re in the process of evaluating the entire system, and I’m closing dorms at prisons where we have high vacancy rates, where we’re having trouble recruiting now.

20 years ago, when we put prisons in rural communities, that was the only game in town and it was a smart move. Now, look at the counties in the Panhandle where there’s a lot of development on the coast and there’s a lot of other jobs and other job opportunities. So, I’m going to move my inmates and expand my footprint in facilities where I believe I can hire and hire better, smarter.

So, as we move our inmate population, this hiring push is meant to get as many of the 1,400 to 1,500 vacant positions, the churn all around the state, filled. And, we figure it’ll take through attrition about 4,000 this year to do that.

The key now is to get community support to hire more and figure out how to retain these individuals. That means better working conditions, that 8-hour shift, more training, and I think doing a better job on the supervisory level of supporting and encouraging our employees.

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.