TALLAHASSEE — In an unprecedented moment of candor, Florida's newly installed prisons chief told a Senate committee that private contractors have provided inadequate medical care to Florida's inmates while crumbling infrastructure and years of staffing cuts have fostered "culture" problems in the massive agency.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones had intended to present the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with a variety of reforms she is proposing to the system that has seen a 13 percent increase in inmate deaths in the past year, but the committee had other ideas.
As Jones told the lawmakers about her priorities to focus on rebuilding decades-old buildings, adequately staff the agency and better handle the growing number of mentally ill inmates, committee members peppered her with questions.
"The media reports that we've seen are not only disquieting but disturbing to my sense of humanity,'' said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
In a series of recent articles, the Miami Herald detailed the deaths of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate herded into a locked, scalding-hot shower at Dade Correctional and left for two hours until he collapsed and died; Randall Jordan-Aparo, repeatedly gassed after annoying staff at Franklin Correctional by complaining he was sick; and Ricky Martin, a slightly built prisoner inexplicably bunked with a towering predator, who rendered him bloody and brain-dead within hours.
The Herald also reported that use-of-force incidents have doubled in the prison system while the inmate population has remained stable.
The Palm Beach Post has reported in-depth on deaths linked to the quality of medical care provided by Corizon and Wexford, the companies that have lucrative contracts with the DOC.
Jones agreed with lawmakers that "Yes, we have a culture issue,'' but noted that unless they restore hundreds of positions cut from the budget in the first four years of Gov. Rick Scott's tenure, other changes may be inadequate.
"Staffing is key to lowering the temperature in these facilities,'' she said. Jones added that training was also needed to raise the level of professionalism and change expectations.
"They feel they don't know what they're supposed to be doing,'' she said of staff. "They're doing it the way their daddy did it and their granddaddy did it."
Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Crestview, grilled Jones about the quality of the health care in prisons since Scott and the GOP-led Legislature pushed to privatize prison medicine in 2012, resulting in a spike in medically related inmate deaths.
"The standard of health care with our current providers is not at the level that is required by the contracts,'' Jones responded. She added, however, that the contracts include no penalties for violating medical standards or failing to provide adequate medical care.
"We are working very diligently with those contracts to bring the standard of care up to the level that is in those contracts," she said.
It was one of a series of candid exchanges about a prison system that has become the prize of the private prison industry as contractors like the Geo Group, Corizon and Wexford lined up well-placed lobbyists close to both the governor and GOP leaders and funneled campaign cash into their campaigns for the past several years. Geo Group operates several Florida prisons.
Jones, who retired from the Florida Department of Highway Safety last year, was recruited to bring in fresh blood to the department, which holds 101,000 inmates and operates a $2.1 billion budget. She is Scott's fourth prison secretary in as many years and is known for her no-nonsense style.
But on Tuesday, she surprised senators when she acknowledged, in response to a question from Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, that private prisons are allowed to "cherry-pick" the least-expensive — and often least-violent — inmates, leaving the most difficult offenders to be handled by state-run institutions.
"That is my belief, yes sir,'' she said. It was a concession that few Republican supporters of privatized prisons have been willing to make.
"The governor tasked me with the mission — to reform the culture of this agency and, in his words, to fix what needs to be fixed," she said.
Jones described the two areas in most immediate need of reform as "salary deficits" — the Legislature and Scott have not given many correctional officers a raise in more than six years — and a "staffing deficit" that began when lawmakers closed 23 prisons, cut $1.1 billion from the budget and 2,600 staff.
She is asking for $16.5 million to boost salaries and hire an additional 160 new staffers — from corrections officers to critical positions in probation, medical and education.
Jones outlined other proposals for the Times/Herald:
• Make shift-changes that force some supervisors and officers to take different hours;
• Establish new use-of-force criteria;
• Increase the number of treatment beds for inmates with mental illnesses;
• Seek $15 million this year and $116.5 million over five years to repair the aging infrastructure.
Jones' call for new money follows last month's request by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which asked the Legislature for an additional $8.4 million to probe prison deaths and cases involving excessive force by Florida law enforcement officers.
But new FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen told the Times/Herald Tuesday that request may now be "fluid."
"This is a process that we'll work our way through," he said. "So we're talking to Secretary Jones at DOC, talking to the Legislature, the governor's office, all the partners and stakeholders in this, and at some point, we'll come back with a solid number."
Asked if the governor will support her budget requests, Jones said that will be revealed next week when he releases his budget proposal. "The governor tasked me with getting this fixed," she said of the state's troubled prison system. He said he would support her budget requests as long as "it's reasonable and you can justify it," she told the Times/Herald.
Does she have a handle on the allegations of abuse and cover-up within her agency?
"The answer is, it's not going to happen overnight," she said, adding she wants to focus on systemic changes to middle-management to shift the culture of the system.
She said reforms are required from everyone at every level of the organization.
"This is all hands on deck," she said. "I can't do this from the top."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.