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Florida Prison Chief Julie Jones Eyes Tech Solutions To Contraband Problem

Sean Locke

Fighting contraband has been an ongoing issue within the state’s prison system. Florida’s prison chief is exploring some innovative ideas to address that issue.

For the 2018 legislative session, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones is asking for two million dollars to help address the prison system’s contraband problem.

“…which includes increased technology to intercept dangerous contraband from entering the Department’s secure facilities and additional contract staffing to gather and analyze security threat group intelligence. Security group means gangs,” said Jones.

In April of this year, Jones’ agency created the Office of Intelligence. Among its jobs is to aid the effort to crack down on contraband throughout the state. The two million, she says, will also support that.

“Combatting contraband is an ongoing challenge, and this investment builds on the positive progress on the Office of Intelligence. And, as an example, cell phones, synthetic drugs, and weapons are a growing problem that affects very directly the security of our facilities,” she added.

Jones spoke earlier this month before a Senate Budget committee that looks at Criminal Justice issues. Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) wondered if Jones should be looking into a techie solution.

“In this area of intelligence investment to minimize this kind of disruption in the system, one of the big concerns I have is the proliferation and struggle to control contraband—particularly like cell phones—where they can be empowered and organized and do things they shouldn’t be doing…what’s the pros and cons of a technology that would scramble those messages, so there’s no benefit to having a cell phone,” he asked.

And, Jones replied the prisons are already doing a few things in that area.

Right now, there’s a pilot underway at Wakulla Correctional Institution in the Panhandle and Okeechobee Correctional Institution in South Florida.

Jones said it’s provided by the prison’s phone company at no cost to the Corrections agency.

“The system sets up an umbrella over dorms,” she stated. “We try not to umbrella the entire prison, so we don’t bleed out and affect 911. But, this masks the ability for a cell phone to be used, and only be exception. So, the Warden’s phone is an exception, and would work.”

There are also cell phone detectors that inmates have to walk by.

“So, if they slipped out of the dorm trying to come and go and to use it in some place that’s outside the umbrella, we can capture them. We have done a lot this year, simple no cost stuff, like plow lines, where we can detect an individual that has walked up to an exterior fence in the prison system and know that someone was there….because a lot of the stuff comes over the fence,” Jones continued.

And, Jones says there is also technology in her legislative funding request not just for inmates, but correctional staff as well.

“More x-ray machines, and increases our ability to look—not a TSA type machine—but inside body cavities in order to look for contraband that have been placed there, and we’re also increasing searches for our own staff,” said Jones.

Prison guards smuggling contraband into Florida’s prisons has been an ongoing issue. In fact, in recent months, several correctional officers in North Florida were fired and arrested for smuggling contraband—some in their body cavities.

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.