- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s new prisons chief on Tuesday promised wide-ranging changes amid the suspicious deaths of dozens of inmates in the state’s prisons.

But Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, in a blunt assessment given to state legislators, said fixing the troubled system will require millions in new spending to compensate for years of budget cuts pursued by the Republican-controlled Legislature and her new boss Gov. Rick Scott.

Jones also conceded that prisoners aren’t receiving adequate health care after the state handed over inmate health care to private companies. She also acknowledged that private prison companies that have expanded operations in the state with the urging of legislators have taken prisoners who have usually committed less serious crimes and are less of a potential probe.

Florida has more than 100,000 prisoners and its system has come under fire for suspicious deaths at several institutions. There are investigations now pending into the deaths of dozens of inmates who died from non-natural causes.

But during the height of the Great Recession the state shuttered many prisons, relocated prisoners and eliminated thousands of positions. Scott supported these moves when he first became governor.

Jones said that she now needs more than $30 million from legislators to fix the state’s prisons and have enough money to fill needed positions. She also vowed to put in place new training that will help prison guards deal with increasing numbers of mentally ill prisoners.

She maintained that the budget cuts and inadequate numbers of prison employees has contributed to an increase in the times guards used forced against inmates.

“Staffing is key to lowering the temperature in these facilities,” Jones said.

Jones said in an interview that she has the backing of Scott to make changes, including asking for more money now.

While some legislators said they applauded Jones frank assessment, some legislators say more work may be needed, including possibly creating an independent commission to keep tabs on the Department of Corrections.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, called some of the revelations about how inmates died “disgusting.” Randall Jordan-Aparo, for example, died at the Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010. He was reportedly gassed while in a confinement cell. Darren Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, died at Dade Correctional in 2012 after being punished with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body.

Clemens said he is concerned that there is a “culture” within the department that encourages guards to look the other way to improper behavior.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Pensacola, and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, maintained that legislators plan to push ahead with changes this coming session to the state’s prison system. He said the state has to make sure that when someone goes to prison “you will come out alive on the other side and not leave the prison in a body bag.”

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