Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday tapped Julie Jones, a public-safety veteran who retired earlier this year, to head the beleaguered Department of Corrections.
The DOC is an agency under state and federal scrutiny for inmate abuse, corruption and retaliation against whistle-blowers.
Jones, the first woman to lead the corrections agency overseeing more than 100,000 inmates, retired this spring after a five-year stint as chief of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Prior to that, Jones served more than two decades at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where she worked her way up to director of law enforcement before taking the highway-safety position in 2009.
Jones had been the subject of longstanding rumors as Scott's pick for the troubled corrections agency but said she was not contacted by Scott's office until last week. Jones, 57, is Scott's fourth corrections chief in four years. The most recent secretary, Mike Crews, retired late last month.
Jones takes over as the agency is grappling with investigations into inmate deaths at the hands of prison guards, lawsuits from whistle-blowers who claim they faced retaliation for exposing cover-ups of inmate abuse and questions about inmate health care after the state's privatization of health services began more than a year ago.
Known for her direct manner, Jones is highly regarded among lawmakers and lobbyists for her ability to reach consensus among entities that often have competing agendas.
Although she lacks experience in the prison arena, Jones said the department has plenty of experts on whom she can rely when she takes over the helm Jan. 5.
"My fresh perspective will enable me to look for different ways to do things. I don't have to be an expert in order to implement change management. I'm good at the people part, and I'm good at the budget part. Hence on getting the current employees that are working as hard as they can the resources to do their job, I can do that. And I think that's going to be the key to this," Jones said.
Crews spent months trying to resuscitate the department's image by purging rogue officers and imposing a "zero tolerance" policy for corruption and abuse before he stepped down in November. Crews' reforms began this summer after reports of inmate abuse by prison guards that sometimes led to horrific deaths. He fired dozens of prison workers, initiated new standards for conduct and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate more than 100 unresolved inmate deaths.
Black leaders are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to expand an investigation into wrongdoing at several Florida prisons, already under scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, a group of corrections investigators filed a lawsuit against Scott and other officials earlier this year, alleging they were retaliated against for exposing the death of an inmate that opened a floodgate of questions about prisoner abuse.
Crews, who repeatedly said he intended to "change the culture" within the corrections agency, was "on the right track" with some of the reforms he implemented, Jones said.
"The cultural change, though, you can tell people that you want them to act differently but if you don't set standards and hold them accountable, it's hard. That's why the HR (human resources) piece and analyzing what their job is, being very specific about what is expected of them so there's no gray area, that's important and that will lead directly into the ethics piece that Mike has been working on," Jones said.
Jones said her first order of business will be analyzing prison workers' job tasks and staffing levels.
"I need to know what they're doing, why they're doing it and are they doing it appropriately. What's their job? What can we automate? What do we need a corrections officer to be doing? Do we need additional technology? How do we make their job better? So we need to go in and do a complete assessment of what the job is," Jones said Wednesday morning in an interview with The News Service of Florida.
The corrections agency has a $2 billion budget and has run a deficit in excess of $100 million over the past few years. One of Crews' main complaints before he left the agency was that corrections workers, who have gone without raises for at least six years, are underpaid and overworked.
Jones said she could advocate for pay hikes with the Legislature and the governor's office but only after her analysis is complete.
"The problem is we want to throw money at a problem. I need to understand what the problem is before we ask for money. Corrections officers have a really bad rap right now. So cleaning up the image, getting them the respect that they're due is all part of then turning around and asking for compensation and everything that they have to work with," she said. "I'm not going to tell you I'm going to go in and ask for a raise.? If we need to hire different people or better people and we can't hire them at $32,000, then we're going to have to do something about it. But the expectations are (to) get some good accountability measures associated with that job description. Then you can go to the Legislature very easily and say these people are underpaid.? Nobody's done that. You can't just keep asking for money without expressing what the problem is."
Whistle-blowers who have filed lawsuits against the state for retaliation after exposing wrongdoing have complained that many higher-level corrections workers involved in prisoner abuse or corruption get promoted while low-level staff lose their jobs.
"Nobody in this system is going to get a free pass," Jones said. "I will also maintain that zero tolerance for corruption, for just basic human rights and how we treat people. A lot of the intimidation in the system is because they can get away with it. That's not right."
The "service piece" needs to "permeate throughout the corrections community," Jones said.
"We have a responsibility to the people who are incarcerated to keep them safe and get them out of the system as quickly and judiciously as we can," she said. "I can talk until I'm blue in the face that I want you to be kind and considerate, but if I don't tell you exactly what my expectations are, there's always that gray area that someone wants to interpret, 'Well, she said this, but she really meant that.' That's why clear and concise messaging on what's acceptable and what's not is going to be critical. Mike was well on the way to doing that. I intend to build on the momentum that he's created."
Jones paused when asked why, after retiring, she would want to tackle an embattled agency with a laundry list of headaches.
"I think prisons are an integral part of the judicial system. As the end of the line once you go through the judicial system, it is very important for our communities that we get it right. I care about the people. I care about the people that work in our prisons. I care about the communities that these prisoners are released to. And I care about Florida. I think this is important," she said.