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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones told a Senate panel Monday that her agency is already implementing most of the changes included in a sweeping bill aimed at improving prison safety and ensuring that guards don’t mistreat inmates.

But codifying the department’s policies in law should help restore the public’s confidence in the beleaguered agency in the aftermath of stories about prisoner abuse and corruption, Jones told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“We have very specific rules and regulations on use of force,” said Jones, a veteran law enforcement officer who came out of retirement at the request of Gov. Rick Scott to take over the corrections agency last month. “How you treat inmates humanely, the care you give that inmate and the care and consideration for training and anything else that inmate is due … but quite frankly … there is a perception that we’re not doing it. I’m fighting this negative perception.”

Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, filed the bill (SB 7020) last week. The proposal would require periodic inspections and audits to look for safety problems in prisons, require specialized training for dealing with mentally ill inmates and allow staff members to make anonymous and confidential reports to the Department of Corrections’ inspector general if they witness abuse or neglect of inmates but fear retribution.

Jones said she has launched a “habitability” inspection of the state’s prisons, the first in decades. And, she said, corrections officials are working to install more video and audio equipment in the institutions.

“I’m saying it’s optics,” Jones said. The bill includes “much of what we are doing” but “it still helps back up the department to point to, these are the things we are holding our folks accountable to,” she said.

But later, Jones acknowledged that the prison system, rocked by reports of cover-ups of inmate deaths at the hands of guards, was in need of more than an image makeover.

“The perception that we don’t have policies to keep us accountable … by ramping it up in statute helps show that we do have those policies and procedures. It’s up to me that they’re followed. So no, I do not have a perception that we don’t have a problem,” she said.

Jones tried to dispel concerns about an 18 percent increase in “use of force” incidents by guards against inmates over the past year. Although there were 894 more reports of use of force, the number of incidents in which inmates acted inappropriately and force could have been used but wasn’t climbed by more than 2,800, Jones said.

“I think these numbers show that in the majority of … instances there is no use of force,” she said, crediting what she viewed as an improvement to a “zero tolerance” policy for abuse of inmates, additional training and other changes implemented last year by her predecessor Michael Crews.

Instances of improper use of force by guards declined from 40 in 2013 to 27 last year, Jones said.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know if I would draw the same conclusions because I don’t know what conclusions to draw based on all I’m hearing,” Bradley, a former prosecutor, said.

As in her first appearance before the committee late last month, Jones insisted that $16.5 million she requested to fill staff vacancies would be instrumental in resolving issues involving inappropriate guard behavior. Scott included the $16.5 million in a budget proposal he released last week. She also stressed the need for additional training for guards to deal with a growing number of mentally ill inmates and $15 million, also included in Scott’s budget proposal, to repair the aging prison infrastructure.

Evers, whose Panhandle district includes three prisons and several work camps, was sympathetic to the plight of guards, who, like most other state workers, have gone without a salary hike for at least five years. At a recent visit to a prison in Santa Rosa County, Evers said guards complained about not having batteries for radios used to call for back-up.

“It becomes a safety issue to me when officers get tired and inmates get unruly,” he said. “If there’s an emergency where an inmate is hanging himself, it takes three officers to breach the door. And if we have one, he’s standing there watching. If he gets on the radio and the battery’s dead, the inmate’s dead before we can get to him. I’m just very concerned about the equipment and the supplies.”

He blamed part of the problem on overtired guards who work 12-hour shifts and on staffing shortages in prisons caused by budget cuts during Florida’s economic downturn. The agency has more than 3,300 fewer guards than were working in the state’s prisons five years ago, Evers pointed out.

“At all of the institutions I’ve been to that are running 12-hour shifts, when you get there and you watch those guys on the last four hours of those shifts, they’re getting tired. And you can see exhaustion. At those particular times, under the right conditions, they may cross the line,” Evers told reporters after the meeting. “The use of force we’re seeing is because of exhaustion, underpay and stress.”

“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”

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