State Politics

Prison head says agency suffers because it can’t keep staff

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones Miami

Florida prison chief Julie Jones told legislators Wednesday that to reshape the culture of her troubled agency, she has hired more than 2,200 additional prison guards in the last year but has lost another 1,400 as staff turnover continues to undercut their efforts.

“We’re taking an aggressive approach,” Jones told the House Justice Appropriations subcommittee in one of two stops before legislative committees.

The Florida Department of Corrections has been on the defensive for the last year as budget reports showed that the agency shifted payroll money to pay for prison repairs in the face of years of inadequate funding from lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott. Scott appointed Jones in January to head the agency through a period of reports of inmate abuse and cover-ups.

After vowing to reform the culture, Jones persuaded lawmakers to fund new hires and lawmakers gave her spending authority to increase payroll and training.

But for all the effort at hiring and training, Jones told the committee, “we just as quickly lose them to local law enforcement agencies.” At Dade Correctional Institution in Miami, for example, 70 percent of the officers have less than two years experience, Jones said.

“We’re training, training, training and losing them,” she said. Jones said she has even started writing officials at county jails to urge them not lure away her staff.

A recent independent audit of the agency’s Use of Force against inmates, cited both lack of training and inadequate staffing levels as a problem that continues at the agency. Many of those findings were echoed in another report released Wednesday, by the FDOC Teamsters United, a group of South Florida members of the union that represents corrections officers.

Their review found that the Florida Department of Corrections lost 7,600 officers from 2012 to 2014 and the primary reason was pay.

“A lot of those officers are working second jobs,” said Kimberly Schultz, a probation officer from North Miami Beach. “They’re not working second jobs to go on vacation. They’re working second jobs to pay the bills.”

She told the House committee that corrections officers have not received a raise in eight years, while other law enforcement agencies, such as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, have seen pay raises.

What’s more, Shultz said, the prison department’s wage scale provides only minimal pay increases for officers promoted from entry level to middle management jobs and that increases the likelihood that they would seek local and federal corrections jobs for advancement.

“Our agency is paying for the training and so they work for our department for two or three years and then leave,” she told the House committee. “The agency is unable to attract and retain a professional and high-quality staff.”

The report also showed that compared to other agencies, the Department of Corrections has a higher percentage of women and African Americans on its workforce than other law enforcement agencies — 27 percent — and is the only one not to receive a pay increase.

“We need raises — that’s how you’re going to keep us here,” she said. “That’s how you’re going to keep our loyalty.”

Jones acknowledged her budget request submitted to the Legislature this week does not include any request for salary increases, although Jones believes they are important.

By not including pay raises in the agency budget request, the governor will not have to find the money to pay for them and will be able to finance other priorities, such as tax cuts.

“We were asked as agency heads to work directly with our legislative counterparts later in the legislative process,” she told reporters.

Jones told the House committee that she will ask for “some adjustments” to pay levels for corrections and probation officers “especially associated with higher risk areas and areas where we are losing employees.”

But she denied that she left out the request so that the governor would not have to fund it.

“I was not asked by the governor’s office not to include it,” Jones said. “I was asked by the governor’s office to put in my highest priorities. Salary is always going to be an element that needs to be discussed going forward.”