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Corrections chief retracts criticism of private prisons

Florida corrections secretary Julie Jones on Wednesday retracted previous statements she made to a Senate committee in which she said private prison operators selectively pick and choose inmates by housing non-violent offenders and avoiding those with expensive substance abuse and mental health problems.

The process has a catchy name in the halls of the Capitol -- "cherry picking" -- but Jones testified Wednesday that it simply isn't true.

"I misspoke," Jones told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee during a lengthy presentation about her goals and priorities as Gov. Rick Scott's fourth prisons chief in four years. "Those low-level offenders are in private prisons by design."

In fact, Jones said, it's the Department of Corrections' classification unit that decides which inmates are housed in which prisons. Those decisions are also governed in part by the per-diem (per inmate) rates that DOC negotiates with the private prisons.

The straight-talking Jones was well-received by the panel, chaired by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. She and her budget chief, Mark Tallent, went through details of her request for nearly $100 million more in the next prison budget, including $37 million to fill 654 vacant correctional officer positions.

"Some people have questioned why I wanted this job," Jones told lawmakers, promising major changes in the troubled third-largest U.S. prison system. "It's not going to stay the way it is."

Jones later told the Times/Herald that she opposes the prison system's decision three years ago to shift most correctional officers to 12-hour work shifts. She said she hopes to negotiate a return to eight-hour shifts with the Teamsters, the union representing officers.