TALLAHASSEE — Ken Tucker is the fifth leader of the Florida prison system in the past five years.
Tucker, 57, a native of Bunnell, is a career law enforcement officer who spent six years as a police officer in Daytona Beach, followed by 28 years at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He started as an undercover FDLE agent investigating drug smuggling cases in Key West and rose to the position of deputy commissioner.
By his own admission, he doesn't know a lot about corrections.
He was asked to take the job on Aug. 24, just hours before Gov. Rick Scott and his chief of staff forced Ed Buss to resign after only six months on the job.
He quickly told them two things: He had little knowledge of corrections, and he has already set his retirement date for March 31, 2013. So while Tucker said he would offer strong leadership, it wouldn't be for very long.
Tucker recently conducted his first interview as corrections secretary, with the Times/Herald. Here's an edited version of that conversation.
Can you recall the moment you got the call about this job?
(FDLE) Commissioner Jerry Bailey came back from a meeting and said, "You're going to be getting a call from the governor's office and they'd like to talk to you about being the secretary of the Department of Corrections." I have to admit, until that very second I had not ever spent one minute of time considering being secretary … I didn't think I knew a lot about corrections. I admitted that candidly.
One thing the governor said has proven to be accurate. He said, "You don't need to know everything about corrections. You've got a lot of good people in the organization who are subject matter experts." What he told me he wanted from me was my reputation.
Did he give you a choice?
There was never any, "Well, if you don't take this, you're done." I truly believe I had a choice. … When I boiled everything down, I saw this job as a great opportunity to make a difference. The goal of corrections in the state of Florida: What exactly is that? If you ask me, our goal ought to be to reduce victimization and reduce recidivism.
Will you recommend the closing of more prisons?
Crime is down. We also see a corresponding decline in our population. We just fell below 101,000 (inmates). That trend seems to be continuing. We're currently sitting on about 12,000 empty prison beds in this state. So part of what we're going to be looking at is, how do we consolidate some of those institutions? These will be decisions that will ultimately be made by the governor and the Legislature, but I can't make a case that "we can't close these." But there's no list.
How do you feel about reducing recidivism by spending a lot more money on substance abuse treatment for inmates?
We're moving more and more toward evidence-based practices. I don't have a strong objection to substance abuse treatment. Unfortunately, I think it's one of those areas, and I think the statistics will bear me out, it might not work the first time. But does that mean you quit? It may not work the second time. I'm not the lock 'em up and throw away the key type. I never have been. I will make this confession — a lot of the beliefs I held as a 34-year law enforcement officer are maybe not as clear as they used to be.
What's an example of that?
I am a proponent of the death penalty. But I think in my first week, I walk in the door over here, and it's "We've got this, we got this, we got this, and oh, by the way we've got an execution scheduled next week." (After watching an execution team conduct a training session at Florida State Prison before Manuel Valle's execution.)
Don't get me wrong. It hasn't changed my mind. I think there are certain crimes, if you commit them, the death penalty is appropriate. But it does cause you to reflect a little more on how you feel about that … from a faith perspective, from many perspectives.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.