News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health News Florida

New Prisons Chief Wants More Money, Oversight

JulieJones.jpg
Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

In her first appearance before the Legislature since taking the helm of the Florida Department of Corrections two weeks ago, a candid Secretary Julie Jones painted a picture of an understaffed agency embattled by a crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing numbers of mentally ill prisoners and private health-care vendors who aren't living up to their contract requirements.

Jones, who came out of retirement after being tapped by Gov. Rick Scott to become the first woman to lead the agency, told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday that she needs more money to fill vacant positions, which she blamed in part for mistreatment of inmates by prison guards.

"Staffing is key to lowering the temperature in these facilities," Jones said. "It's going to take all hands on deck and it's going to take a true change in how we look at the role of the corrections officers and also the expectations of what those corrections officers, what services, they deliver to those inmates. Quite frankly, it's a service. They're there to keep them happy and they're there to keep them healthy … and do it in such a way that they enter the facility in the same way that they exit the facility. And we're not doing that."

The staffing boost is part of a wide-ranging agenda Jones laid out that includes possibly terminating or renegotiating contracts with prison health-care vendors, intensive training for guards who deal with mentally ill patients and a "direct line" to the agency's inspector general, who now answers to Scott's inspector general Melinda Miguel.

Lawmakers cut nearly $1 billion --- and did away with more than 1,000 positions --- from the department's $2.1 billion budget over the past four years, committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, noted.

Earlier in the day, Jones told reporters she plans to ask for $17 million to "fully fund" positions now vacant in security and administrative positions and another $15 million to fix what she called a "crumbling infrastructure" that includes one prison that was built in 1913 and is still operating.

After the meeting, Evers, whose Panhandle district includes three prisons and several work camps, put some of the onus on the Legislature for a prison system now under state and federal scrutiny for inmate deaths and corruption. The agency is also grappling with lawsuits from whistleblowers who claim they faced retaliation for exposing cover-ups of inmate abuse. And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the deaths of more than 100 prisoners who died behind bars.

"I think the Legislature has a cross to bear," Evers told reporters.

Evers said he was uncertain if Jones' request for increased staffing went far enough.

"I can tell you how far we will go. We will go to the point that when you go to prison that you will be given the opportunity to enter the Department of Corrections. You will be allowed to rehabilitate yourself … and you will come out alive on the other side and not leave the prison in a body bag," he said.

Jones also told the committee she was dissatisfied with the privatization of health-care services, ordered by the Legislature in 2011 but tied up in court until 2013. Missouri-based Corizon won a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to provide health care to prisoners in North and Central Florida and Wexford Health Services is being paid $240 million over five years to provide health services to nine prisons in South Florida.

Jones said she is talking with both companies about terminating the contracts, renegotiating the deals or putting them out to bid again.

"The standard of health care with our current providers is not at the level that's required by their contracts," said Jones, a former head of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles who was named last month by Scott to take over the Department of Corrections.

Jones veered from testimony her predecessors had given regarding private prisons. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, asked Jones if it was true that private prisons were able to "cherry pick" cheaper prisoners.

"That is my belief," she said.

Scott tried to convince lawmakers to privatize a major portion of the state's prisons two years ago, but the measure failed by a single vote in the Senate.

After the meeting, Jones paused when asked if she "broke the code" by criticizing the private prisons. "I don't know. I'm a very plain-spoken, honest person. And we're going to keep doing what we're doing in order to get this thing fixed," she said.