TALLAHASSEE — Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones put a positive spin on negative reports about scandal, death and excessive use of force at her agency Monday as she told a Senate committee that the agency faces a "perception problem" but the obstacles are "temporary."
Her assurances that her proposal to spend $15 million on infrastructure improvements and $16.5 million on hiring new staff will bring a "new day" for the department were greeted with skepticism by some members of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, however.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, the chairman of the committee, urged Jones to immediately renegotiate contracts with private companies that provide medical services to inmates. Jones previously said the companies are providing inadequate medical care.
He warned that the state must act more aggressively to deal with its troubled prisons or face federal takeover of the system —as happened 40 years ago when Florida State Prison inmate Michael Costello filed a lawsuit alleging that his constitutional rights were violated because of inadequate medical care. The federal courts assumed oversight of the state's prisons for more than two decades, ordering legislators to relieve crowding and improve health care.
"We can operate our prison system more efficiently than the federal government,'' said Evers after the meeting. "If we do not make changes this legislative session, I am very afraid of what might happen."
His comments came a day after former DOC Secretary Mike Crews directed sharp criticism at Gov. Rick Scott, saying Scott ignored budget requests and appeals to increase staff and improve working conditions, which Crews said was contributing to stress and excessive use of force.
Jones said the agency abides by rules "that you don't lay hands on inmates" but "there's a perception that we're not doing it.''
"We've got a perception problem,'' she said.
Responding to criticism that there was an 18 percent rise in use of force in the past year, she said deeper analysis shows there was a corresponding increase in actions by inmates that provoked the use of force.
That prompted Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to ask if she thought Crews "is wrong?"
Jones said she hadn't heard what Crews said. "I'm having a difficult time with that,'' she said. "Use of force is going down."
She also denied allegations that the agency has covered up inmate deaths as a result of abuse by corrections officers.
"This is absolutely not true," she said, adding that she has signed a new agreement with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation of every inmate death — an exercise former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said would cost about $64 million.
The governor did not include any additional money for those investigations in his proposed 2015-16 budget, but Jones did not address that.
The committee also heard from the agency's inspector general, Jeffery Beasley, who said that because of a new policy that increases the reporting requirements on use of force incidents, "you're seeing an uptick in the numbers."
The committee was skeptical.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, noted that the numbers provided by the agency are "self-reported" and not validated by any independent authority.
Bradley asked Jones to produce names of prison guards who were "held accountable" for participating in contraband smuggling in the past two years.
"We all know it's beyond a perception problem,'' Clemens said.
Jones clarified that "the perception that we don't have policies to keep us accountable" is wrong, adding that statutes exist and "it's up to me to make sure they're followed."
Evers, who conducted surprise inspections at three of the most troubled prisons — Suwannee, Jefferson and Santa Rosa — in the past two weeks described how there was only one medical staffer to attend to 1,434 prisoners during one of his visits.
"I think you need to renegotiate their contract and start immediately on that,'' he told Jones.
Jones did not respond. Her spokesman, McKinley Lewis, said she "is currently auditing our contractor's performance at each institution to ensure the inmates in our custody receive the best possible health care and treatment."
She acknowledged that the greatest issues facing the agency are the understaffing of prisons, and crumbling facilities that have added to stressful working conditions. She said she is proposing a five-year plan to repair 145 buildings in need of "pretty significant repair."
"Fixing the budget of the department is the single most important thing we can do in creating a safe and secure environment not only for our partners but our inmates,'' she told the committee.
Jones said she is implementing a new program to focus on better treatment of inmates with mental illnesses, putting an ombudsman in 10 prisons, starting with Dade Correctional Institution.
Jones also said the department is developing an extensive plan to communicate with its employees, 6,000 of whom do not have email addresses. She spoke about how the department's mantra will be to focus on halting inmate recidivism by starting a "re-entry plan the day that an inmate comes to us."