By Mary Ellen Klas

In a move that has the potential to either shake up the Department of Corrections or validate the status quo, prisons chief Julie Jones has asked for the 12 top officials in charge of prisons and probation to reapply for their jobs by Tuesday as part of a major realignment designed to centralize power at the agency.

The officials, each of them high-ranking officers who have spent most of their career rising through the ranks of the department, may seek their old job or apply for any of the openings in one of the three existing regions or seek the open posts at a newly added fourth region.

The move opens to competition the top jobs in the state's prison system. Having to apply to stay employed are three directors and three assistant directors of the three current regions and two regional directors and four assistant directors of the two community corrections regions. Applicants -- including current regional chiefs Sam Culpepper, Eric Lane and Randy Tifft -- will be judged based on a new set of accountability measures imposed by an executive order of the governor in May, said DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis.

"We want to put the right people in the right seats," he said.

The result will have the effect of either allowing Jones to reject any of the high-ranking officials at the embattled agency without having to fire them, or keep the veteran officers in place and consolidate her power. Jones was appointed secretary of the agency by Scott in January and is the seventh head of the troubled agency in nearly as many years.

For the last two years, the Miami Herald has chronicled a pattern of deadly abuse in Florida's prisons, staff cover-ups and intimidation tactics used to quiet complaints by inmates and prison officials.

The May 8 executive order, and initiated by Jones, attempted to address many of those problems by increasing accountability at the agency. It focused on tightening regulations relating to the use of force, protecting employees from retaliation when they report wrongdoing, and improving the tracking of chemical agents used to subdue disruptive inmates.

Since then, the agency has fired 316 employees "as a result of disciplinary action," and assisted in the arrest of eight corrections officers for a range of offenses, Lewis said. The offenses include battery on an inmate, falsifying records, introducing contraband into a prison, conspiracy and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Office of Inspector General, which was accused of covering up inmate abuse in the past, has also opened "340 cases of inappropriate use of force, based on allegations of excessive force, physical abuse or violations of procedures or rules," he said.

The latest exercise is part of the "Regional Realignment and Centralization Project" that aims to streamline the regional offices, centralize the administrative and support functions of the agency and requires hundreds of employees to reapply for jobs.

"We are confident that these projects will increase accountability and allow the Department to further utilize our resources," Jones wrote in a letter to employees last week.

She said the changes "will have no direct effect" on most of the agency's 23,000 employees but warned that for others, "these changes will drastically impact the way in which they conduct daily operations within the Department, and may necessitate a move to employment outside of our agency," Jones wrote.

Whatever Jones does will be closely watched by critics who have blasted the agency for its culture of corruption and inmate abuse, and by legislators who last session considered creating an independent commission that would oversee the agency that many lawmakers had concluded could no longer police itself.

"I don't know what their motives are," said Judy Thompson, director of the Forgotten Majority, a Jacksonville-based non-profit that advocates for inmate rights. "It could just be a dog and pony show for the upcoming legislative session. I don't know. The only thing I can say for sure is I'm not getting less complaints. I'm getting more -- and you have to intervene to keep people alive."

George Mallinckrodt, a former psychotherapist at Dade Correctional Institution, who has been an outspoken critic of the agency, said he is hopeful that Jones is determined "get rid of some of these people who cover up for others" but he is waiting to see what transpires.

"She has a lot of power to change things," he said of Jones. "The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the culture of brutality that controls the DOC, and the only way that can be dislodged is to go at it with a vengeance."

He said that if Jones attempts to attack the abuse, "she is going to be in for the fight of her life ... My attitude is 'prove it.' "

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House's Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he was encouraged by the move.

"The good thing that is coming out is we're actually reviewing performance," he said. "For way too long it was status quo -- regardless of outcome. Her reviewing everyone individually on their strengths and weaknesses is a good start."

(c)2015 Miami Herald