Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones claims conditions improving in Florida’s prisons
The officers descended on Franklin Correctional Institution on Jan. 3, 2016, in riot gear, armed with 12-gauge shotguns, “non-lethal” grenades and chemical agents. They launched the grenades, which propelled rubber balls at the agitated prisoners, then fired at least one shot, a rubber bullet, at inmate Frenel Romain, who had been sitting on a rail, waving his arms, daring officers to shoot him.
Other inmates were jumping around, inciting violence against the guards that spiraled in the midst of a gang war that had been escalating for days, incident logs show.
The disturbance was the most violent crisis in a Florida state prison since Secretary Julie Jones took control of the agency almost a year to the day earlier.
There were one or two officers and more than 100 inmates outside the chow hall that morning when the conflict broke out. Like most prisons in Florida, Franklin is dangerously understaffed. That same week, records show, 38 security breaches were logged in Florida prisons, ranging from missing keys and broken perimeter fences to inmate counts where prisoners couldn’t be found and officers and inmates who were attacked and injured.
During the past year, Jones has faced some of the toughest challenges of her 31 years in state government. She has been interrogated by state lawmakers, dressed down by veteran corrections officers and overwhelmed by complaints, grievances and lawsuits filed by the families of inmates who allege that prisoners have been beaten, medically neglected and mentally and sexually abused.
“There are a lot of situations, day to day, that are scary,’’ said Jones, in her most comprehensive interview with the Miami Herald since she was coaxed by Gov. Rick Scott to come out of retirement to try to right the agency’s sinking ship.
“I walk into dorms every day that have 142 inmates and one officer. That officer goes by his wits and training … but we scramble people,’’ she said.
She has also seen those prison surveillance videos — the ones that the public can’t see — where inmates have been knocked down, kicked and beaten by officers with no obvious justification.
“The inmate goes down to the ground and you can tell the officers thought they could do that, and obviously they did do it,” Jones said. “Who let those officers know or gave them the impression that that was acceptable behavior?”
She believes that the agency is now on the right path. Since she took the $160,000-a-year position, she has overhauled most of her top staff and has fired or forced 1,080 people to resign, 279 more than the year before. Those who remain have been put on notice that she will not tolerate the kind of abuse that has been part of the prisons’ culture for decades.
I tell people every day: If you want resources, I can’t go to the Legislature with the perception being that we are jack-booted thugs beating people up.
Julie Jones, secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections
She attributes some of the tensions to overworked and under-trained staff. There are not enough officers and the ones she does have put in 12-hour shifts and — on top of that — up to four hours a day in overtime to cover the agency’s 49 prisons.
While an independent audit commissioned by the Legislature last year concluded that staffing is at a crisis level, Jones stops short of characterizing the system as ready to explode.
She is fighting to return officers to eight-hour shifts, a move she says will not only save money, (the agency spent in excess of $36 million a year in overtime in 2014, and some can make as much as $20,000 a year in overtime along, she says), but make prisons more secure.
“Imagine being out there, working to be mentally sharp, on your toes for 16 hours,’’ says Jones, a certified law enforcement officer who has visited most of the state’s prisons and has seen officers’ lack of experience and how thinly staffed the prisons are.
Jones, 58, is committed until the end of Scott’s term in 2018.
She began her tenure on the defensive.
Standing before a Senate committee last year, she blamed “a perception problem” for the criticism that the agency faced over excessive use of force, failed staff discipline, the introduction of contraband by corrections officers and a culture of cover-ups. But armed with a year of insight and policy initiatives — and three independent audits — her approach has evolved.
This year, during a weekend of budget negotiations, Jones spelled out in stark terms the long-term cost of Florida’s past decision to try to save money by cutting 700 corrections officers during the recession. “Violent incidents have increased,’’ she said. “Sick leave hours taken by officers have climbed by more than 900 hours a year,” and “contraband recovery has hit record highs.”
Jones asked for authorization for 738 additional officers. The Legislature funded 215, but she received some kudos for her pushback.
“Her refreshing candor is why she’s earned an incredible reservoir of credibility with many of us,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, former head of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the corrections budget.
Jones says the reforms she has put in place over the past year have led to management and policy changes aimed at holding her 24,000 employees more accountable.
She has instituted new use-of-force policies, created better systems for tracking problem officers and now requires all inmate grievances to be sent to a central location rather than letting the prison where the purported offense happened keep matters in house. She is renegotiating the inmate healthcare contract, installing cameras in all prison dorms, and has authorized a pilot program to put body cameras on some corrections officers.
She even revamped the agency’s logo, re-branding it “FDC’’ in an effort to show that the prison system is not the same old DOC.
Some have criticized the rebranding when she faces larger challenges. But Jones believes the change lifted morale at an agency that has felt starved and ignored after years of budget cuts. Officers have not had raises in nearly a decade, and they work under difficult conditions. She believes those conditions contributed to some of the tensions that led to inmate abuses.
“I tell people every day: If you want resources, I can’t go to the Legislature with the perception being that we are jack-booted thugs beating people up.’’
She has also hired thousands of new officers, but she has lost many as well to better-quality, better-paying jobs. Corrections officers earn an average of $32,000 a year.
“I think Julie Jones is trying her best with what she has,’’ said Ron McAndrew, a former Department of Corrections warden who now works as a private prison consultant.
“She has responded to one crisis after another, and she’s had her fair share in one year. But she is trying to change a tire with a screwdriver, that’s what it boils down to.’’
McAndrew, who works for lawyers representing inmates, visits prisons every week. He said some prisons seem under control while others remain troubled, under the thumb of officers and wardens who have grown accustomed to a “good ol’ boy’’ culture where abuse of inmates is condoned.
“There are certain areas where she has a nest of snakes and it’s difficult to get those nests under control,’’ he said.
Among the toughest prisons is Santa Rosa, in Florida’s Panhandle. The incident reports from the first week of January alone showed the highest number of sexual assaults, security breaches and batteries occurred at Santa Rosa. On Jan. 5, an officer was slashed by an inmate and had to be hospitalized.
Fourth boss in five years
During a recent tour of Wakulla Correctional, a prison just south of Tallahassee, Jones’ entourage preceded her through the gate. Like everyone else, she is searched and forced to clear a metal detector. The warden is noticeably nervous as Jones walks into his office.
Jones is the fourth secretary in five years, and the first woman to head the agency, which is the state’s largest, with a $2.4 billion budget. She may be the only woman in a men’s club, but she marches into a prison compound like a general; the officers and inmates often stand at attention, even though she always tells them to go about doing what they were doing.
“If you walk prisons in the summertime with no air conditioning, you’re in the trenches,’’ Jones said. “I have not limited where I go based on anything. You have an officer in a dorm with 142 people, then I’m with them; if I expect them to be in there, then I will be in there.’’
She showed up unexpectedly last June at Desoto Correctional Institution. Emotions were raw among the inmates, who had threatened a riot just days earlier. She also rattled the nerves of her staff by heading out to the yard, where 500 inmates were being supervised by four officers.
Her deputy secretary, Ricky Dixon, said that by then, he wasn’t surprised, though he recalls he gently reminded her that there had been a disturbance a few days earlier and threats had been made against officers. The prison was in lockdown for three days and this day was the inmates’ first opportunity since then to be outdoors.
“She was wearing her tennis shoes, and when she wears those shoes, we know we are going to have a long day,’’ Dixon said.
Jones walked out by the field where inmates were playing softball. She talked to them about their uniforms, many of which were tattered, and their equipment, which really was no equipment at all. For years, a Legislative trust fund for inmates provided funds for recreational equipment, but it was lost in budget cuts, so many prisons lack things like soccer balls, softballs and basketball nets.
So are educational, life-skills, vocational programs, which have been decimated by years of cutbacks by Florida lawmakers. Jones hasn’t asked for more funding for programs to help inmates re-enter society. Instead, she is combing her current budget to evaluate how to better spend dollars the department has .
“Every single contract and program is under evaluation now,’’ she said.
When Jones was growing up in Pompano Beach, she didn’t dream of becoming a prisons boss. She wanted to work in marine and wildlife protection.
After graduating with a degree in biology from Florida Atlantic University, she began her career as a state biologist before becoming a fish and game officer. She spent three decades as a state law enforcement officer, rising to colonel, before transitioning to the department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as executive director.
But she had no experience running a prison system, let alone one as vast and broken as Florida’s.
Her refreshing candor is why she’s earned an incredible reservoir of credibility with many of us.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island
When Scott coaxed her out of retirement in late 2014 and asked that she rescue a prison system marred by reports of abuse, corruption and suspicious inmate deaths, she admits she didn’t know much more than the average citizen about prisons.
“I knew what the average person on the street knew, which was ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Yes, we have prisons and it’s for bad people and I don’t know what happens behind those fences. And it’s been very eye opening.’’
She was forced to learn pretty quickly. The Herald and other news media were turning out stories about horrible inmate deaths, and agency inspectors were alleging — in sworn testimony — that their efforts to investigate suspicious deaths and abuses had been thwarted by higher-ups in the agency.
Deaths were up again last year to a new high of 354 inmates, although that is at least partly a reflection of the aging prison population. Still, 34 of those who died were 40 or under. It’s not clear whether there is a pattern to the deaths since about half of them are still under investigation.
Early on, she rejected efforts to force out the department’s chief law enforcement officer, Jeffery Beasley, under whose watch some of the most egregious brutality seemed to flourish. She defended him before legislative committees, whose members questioned the agency’s ability to police itself. Only last fall was he reassigned to another position in the agency.
Jones admits that there are some things she would have done differently had she known then what she now knows.
“There were probably a couple of people I trusted a little too much and in hindsight, I would have acted a little bit quicker,’’ she said.
After more than a year in charge of the nation’s third-largest prison system, Jones has accomplished what few others had before her: getting more money and more staff for a system that had been hollowed out by budget cuts.
Public safety advocates insist there are bigger challenges, however.
“We just can’t keep spending money on a sinking ship,’’ said Deborrah Brodsky, director of Project Accountable Justice, a think tank on public safety at Florida State University. “We have had no investment strategy bigger than the immediate cost of the department.’’
There needs to be a plan that focuses on strategic outcomes, such as reducing crime and recidivism, Brodsky said.
Jones says she is aware that the agency needs a long-term strategy and she is building one. She also knows she has a lot to prove to the families of the nearly 100,000 inmates in her care.
“My pledge to families is we are moving the needle and we’re going to the best of our ability create an environment where inmates are supervised,” she said. “It is a prison and there needs to be discipline but it also has to be an environment for them to survive and get back into the community and be productive.’’
Florida State prisons facts
Inmates: 98,000 (Third-largest in the country)
Budget: Proposed $2.4 billion, including $57 million in new money
Healthcare costs for inmates: $268 million
Cost per inmate per day of incarceration: $50