March 21, 2016
| For More Information
Published: March 18, 2016
By: Julie K. Brown
To view the article online, visit: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article66868842.html.
During the past year, Jones has faced some of the toughest challenges of her 31 years in state government. She has been interrogated by state lawmakers, dressed down by veteran corrections officers and overwhelmed by complaints, grievances and lawsuits filed by the families of inmates who allege that prisoners have been beaten, medically neglected and mentally and sexually abused.
She believes that the agency is now on the right path…She has overhauled most of her top staff and has fired or forced 1,080 people to resign, 279 more than the year before. Those who remain have been put on notice that she will not tolerate the kind of abuse that has been part of the prisons’ culture for decades.
“Her refreshing candor is why she’s earned an incredible reservoir of credibility with many of us,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, former head of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the corrections budget.
Jones says the reforms she has put in place over the past year have led to management and policy changes aimed at holding her 24,000 employees more accountable.
She has instituted new use-of-force policies, created better systems for tracking problem officers and now requires all inmate grievances to be sent to a central location rather than letting the prison where the purported offense happened keep matters in house. She is renegotiating the inmate healthcare contract, installing cameras in all prison dorms, and has authorized a pilot program to put body cameras on some corrections officers.
Jones is the fourth secretary in five years, and the first woman to head the agency, which is the state’s largest, with a $2.4 billion budget. She may be the only woman in a men’s club, but she marches into a prison compound like a general; the officers and inmates often stand at attention, even though she always tells them to go about doing what they were doing.
“If you walk prisons in the summertime with no air conditioning, you’re in the trenches," Jones said. “I have not limited where I go based on anything. You have an officer in a dorm with 142 people, then I’m with them; if I expect them to be in there, then I will be in there."
She showed up unexpectedly last June at Desoto Correctional Institution. Emotions were raw among the inmates, who had threatened a riot just days earlier. She also rattled the nerves of her staff by heading out to the yard, where 500 inmates were being supervised by four officers.
Her deputy secretary, Ricky Dixon, said that by then, he wasn’t surprised, though he recalls he gently reminded her that there had been a disturbance a few days earlier and threats had been made against officers. The prison was in lockdown for three days and this day was the inmates’ first opportunity since then to be outdoors.
“She was wearing her tennis shoes, and when she wears those shoes, we know we are going to have a long day," Dixon said.
“My pledge to families is we are moving the needle and we’re going to the best of our ability create an environment where inmates are supervised,” she said. “It is a prison and there needs to be discipline but it also has to be an environment for them to survive and get back into the community and be productive."
As Florida's largest state agency, the Department of Corrections employs more than 24,000 members statewide, incarcerates more than 98,000 inmates and supervises nearly 140,000 offenders in the community.