February 5, 2015
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By: Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
Published February 5, 2015
To view the story online, visit: http://www.northescambia.com/2015/02/five-questions-for-florida-doc-secretary-julie-jones.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones came out of retirement to take over a troubled agency dealing with reports of cover-ups involving inmate deaths, whistleblower lawsuits and state and federal investigations into prison activities.
Tapped in December by Gov. Rick Scott, Jones is the first woman to lead the agency overseeing more than 100,000 inmates…
Five questions for Julie Jones:
Q: You’ve taken over an agency that is the subject of lawsuits from workers who say they’ve been retaliated against for exposing wrongdoing. The department is under state and federal investigation at different prisons for corruption and abuse and is the object of almost daily critical news reports. Do you think you’ll be able to turn the agency around and instill public confidence and particularly assure families of inmates that when their loved ones enter institutions they will come out alive?
JONES: I am absolutely confident that we are going to be able to right this ship. I say that based on my confidence in the people that work for this department and the solid reputation that many of our people have in their communities.
We’re doing a series of surveys right now. We did an online survey. We’re also going into every institution… Teams that are entering into these institutions are finding people that care. They understand their role. They want to be involved in reentry. They want to be involved in getting that inmate in and out.
It’s my confidence in the existing staff that leads me to believe that we can fix it and that I’m going to be able to be accountable to those families and friends of inmates, and for them to know that they will be safe in our institutions.
Q: Your predecessor, former Secretary Michael Crews, said that there were problems with flooding, leaking roofs, supply shortages and a list of other troubles that went way beyond perception.
JONES: We definitely have an infrastructure problem…We have approximately $116 million in infrastructure needs.
I asked staff, what can you do this year? And the answer was $15 million for fixed capital outlay, and the governor’s put it in the budget. This solves another problem. Because we’ve been underfunded in that category, to keep the roofs fixed we’ve been keeping vacancies in our officer positions to fix the roof. That creates an officer safety issue. It creates issues inside the institutions that create tension. If we fix the funding issues associated with this agency, I think it goes a long way to stabilizing the environment…
Q: The department is estimated to spend $33 million on overtime this year, largely because of staffing shortages. You asked for $16.5 million to fill vacant positions. That would only fill about 300 more than 2,000 jobs that were cut over the past several years. Can you fill critical staff positions at prisons with the amount of money you requested?
JONES: … Stopping the use of salary dollars for roofs, for bed linens, for medicine, for all the stuff that we’re using it for and using it to staff the institutions is the goal here.
I have a list of every institution, and that list gives me current required positions, total facility positions and then staffing. My suggestion was 96 percent…That number, for staffing goal, is 16,283 positions. We have 16,851 authorized positions. That looks like we’re overstaffed. In reality we’re not. Because there’s another issue that’s key to staffing a prison and it’s relief factor. We want the issue of relief factor to always be considered in a staffing matrix…That number is a couple of hundred more.
That’s why when the governor looked at me and said, “How much money do you need?” we did an analysis of the entire system but also went beyond just the security section, the institutions part. That $16.5 million is for every critical position in reentry, in the institution units and the correction probation, our community corrections people.
You’re going to hear me talk more and more about taking that individual when they enter into a reception center, do every evaluation that we can and then tell that inmate, here is your reentry plan. You may have a two-year sentence. You may have a 10-year sentence. But we’re going to immediately begin the process to get you the resources that you need to be safe.
Q: There’s been some criticism, including from senators, about your interpretation of the use-of-force statistics. There was an increase of 1,017 incidents of use of force, an 18 percent rise. But you explained that numbers weren’t really going up because the number of incidents that could have resulted in use of force but did not went up by more than 2,000. Can you explain your interpretation of the use-of-force data?
JONES: It’s very important when you talk about use of force to understand it’s a negative term but it’s not necessarily a negative act. I was trying to say that use of force is anything from holding someone’s arm and escorting them into a room all the way to doing a cell extraction.
…The three biggest areas of increase last year were in self-defense, use of force to quell a disturbance or use of force for physical resistance to a lawful act. I also said yesterday that the number of times we had to react to those issues were up 894 but the precipitating act associated with that 800-plus increase were actually 2,812. What I was trying to say was yes, we had an increase of laying hands on an inmate for a legitimate purpose and it was because we had almost double an increase of times where those officers had to react. So yes, it went up, but so did the precipitating acts. The point that I think was lost in the discussion was use of force is 99 percent of the time legitimate. It’s necessary.
The number of misuse where you violated policy in your use of force and were subsequently disciplined — remember an increase of almost 900 incidents — the misuse, the illegal use of force by a corrections officer went down from 40 to 27 incidents. So these numbers are big. But you have to understand what the numbers represent. And the key number for me is violations of policy are down. I believe it’s down because we’ve done a lot of training in the last six months and it’s proving to be very, very valuable.
The question that very few people ask me is, is there a correlation with staffing and assaults on officers and injuries to officers, and indeed there is. Officers are quelling more disturbances and doing it correctly and getting injured more often. That’s the story. That last piece is very rarely spoken about.
Q: One of the first things you did after taking over was to look at the health-care contracts and say they needed to be reworked. Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers ordered you this week to renegotiate the contracts immediately. Has the time come for the state to rethink the privatization of health care for inmates?
JONES: Let me talk about the accountability measures. We need liquidated damages. We need penalties. And we need to totally rethink the behavioral sciences piece that’s associated with mental-health care in these contracts.
I think they need to be rebid under an invitation to negotiate so we can really sit down with vendors and talk about where their skills are, what they have to offer and set mutually agreed-upon goals about what is success and what is staffing. I intend to look at this very hard in the next two weeks. I know Sen. Evers said rebid today. But frankly I have to take a seamless approach to how we do these contracts because I need a continuum of service. These two companies that have these contracts can give me 120-day notice and walk away. I don’t want that to happen. I want us to come to an agreement where we mutually agree that we need to redo how we’re operating under these contracts and then rebid.
As Florida's largest state agency, the Department of Corrections employs more than 22,000 members statewide, incarcerates more than 100,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders in the community.