The Phoenix Flyer

Corrections nominee would face woefully inadequate prison staffing; environmental protection head would face ‘power grab’

By: - February 28, 2022 4:01 pm

Ricky Dixon, nominated to lead the Florida Department of Corrections, speaks to senators about critical shortages of staff and programs. Behind him, at right, is DEP secretary nominee Shawn Hamilton. Both were recommended Monday for confirmation. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

The acting head of Florida’s beleaguered prison system advanced toward confirmation after reiterating to state senators at a hearing Monday that staffing and programming remain woefully inadequate.

The senators voted Monday to recommend Ricky Dixon for confirmation as secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, and they voted to recommend confirmation of Shawn Hamilton as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried has long objected to the DEP chief being confirmed in Senate proceedings without being vetted by the Florida Cabinet, of which she is a member.

Dixon, former assistant secretary, has been running the Department of Corrections since Secretary Mark Inch abruptly resigned in December following clashes last session with lawmakers who wanted to cut prison funding. Inch described the state’s prison system as one in crisis, verging on collapse.

The Senate committee on ethics and elections voted unanimously to recommend Dixon be confirmed to succeed his former boss.

As Inch had done, Dixon told senators the ailing prison system’s most urgent problem is critical staffing shortages, followed by insufficient programming to keep inmates constructively engaged. Both problems are urgent and are linked to legislative funding and policy support, Dixon said.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orange County Democrat, asked Dixon how lawmakers can help the prison system reduce inmate idleness, which is considered a safety risk and a waste of the opportunity to rehabilitate inmates.

“What about more programming to combat the idleness that you speak of? I’ve always thought that that would be a good way to keep them active and engaged and moving toward rehabilitation,” Bracy said.

Dixon welcomed the question, replying, “It’s the second key element of a successful corrections system. One is, you’ve got to have the proper staffing to provide the deterrent necessary. … The No. 2 best control mechanism you have — not only to help with reentry, to better prepare those inmates for release, but to ensure smoother operations within the prison — is programs. Programs take resources, it takes funding. We’ve struggled with that over the years.”

Programming and staffing are interconnected, he cautioned.

“Without enough security staff to manage those programs, to supervise those inmates in the classroom, to handle movement of high-custody inmates, we’re underwater. Getting the staffing healthy is our first goal.”

The Senate committee voted 9-0 to recommend Dixon for confirmation.

Shawn Hamilton. Credit: Florida DEP,

Also on unanimous votes, the committee recommended Senate confirmation of Hamilton for DEP secretary, Melanie Griffin for secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and Todd Inman for secretary of the Department of Management Services.

Despite Fried’s objections, the full Senate plans to have the final say on the appointments, which were made by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

About Hamilton, northwest Florida Republican Sen. Doug Broxson praised the nominee for prior work in the Panhandle over his 13-year tenure with DEP.

“You handled the aftermath of one of the most devastating events in the history of the Panhandle, and that was the [2010] Deepwater Horizon oil spill. … You’ve done it admirably,” Broxson said.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaking in the Florida Cabinet room on. Sept. 1, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Since last fall, Fried, a Cabinet member, has objected to the nominee for DEP secretary bypassing a vote by the Cabinet. She says her objection is not about Hamilton but about the process by which he is being confirmed, which she describes as ongoing power-grabbing by the governor.

“The checks and balances in place under current law … protects against unilateral appointments by the governor of underqualified individuals, individuals not fit to serve, or nominees put forth for political purposes rather than with the best interest of the people of Florida in mind,” Fried said in a news statement last Wednesday.

“In a state where our lives and livelihoods depend upon the health of our environment, the leader of the Department of Environmental Protection must be held to the highest standards. I have continuously made clear that my qualm is not with the current nominee, but that this critical appointment be done in accordance with Florida law. … This is yet another power grab by the governor intent on consolidating power, changing laws to crack down on any potential dissent or opposing views, in a dictatorial fashion that only serves his ambitions – not the people of Florida.”

Senate Bill 1658, sponsored by DeSantis allies Aaron Bean — a Nassau-Duval Republican who is Senate president pro tempore — and Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Lee County Republican, would change the process of confirming executive appointments by reducing the role of the Cabinet and increasing the role of the governor and the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill has passed the Senate. Its counterpart, House Bill 1295, is near a final vote in the House.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.