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DeSantis announces retirements, replacements at Corrections, other state agencies

Florida Capitol
State of Florida

The retirements of the leaders of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Elder Affairs had not been previously announced.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday announced the appointment of three agency heads, including a new secretary at the troubled Florida Department of Corrections.

DeSantis tapped Ricky Dixon, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Corrections, to lead the agency after the retirement of Mark Inch, who became secretary in January 2019. Inch struggled throughout his tenure to address chronic officer shortages and turnover exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Inch repeatedly painted a portrait of a state prison system “in crisis” because of the staffing woes. But he also drew criticism, including from Senate President Wilton Simpson, over how best to address the issues.

In the other announcements Friday:

  • Michelle Branham, who has served as vice president of public policy for the Florida Alzheimer’s Association, was named secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs. She is replacing the retiring Richard Prudom.
  • Eric Hall, who has served as a senior chancellor at the Florida Department of Education, was named secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Hall replaces interim Secretary Josie Tamayo, who is expected to move to another position in the DeSantis administration. Former DJJ Secretary Simone Marstiller exited in February to lead the state Agency for Health Care Administration.
  • Wesley Brooks, who has served as director of federal affairs at the state Department of Environmental Protection since January 2020, was named state chief resilience officer. Julia Nesheiwat, who was hired by DeSantis in 2019 as Florida's first chief resilience office, left in 2020 for a federal job.

The retirements of Inch and Prudom had not been previously announced. Friday’s announcement from the governor’s office said Prudom “has faithfully served the state of Florida for more than 30 years where he has worked to develop, implement, and lead public policies and programs that improve the lives of Florida families.”

It did not provide any similar comments about Inch, a retired Army major general and former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email Friday that Inch is retiring in December, though an organization chart on the department’s website showed Dixon as secretary.

Dixon started working for the department as a correctional officer and held various positions before becoming a deputy secretary in 2015, according to Friday’s announcement.

Senior legislative aides had predicted Inch, a soft-spoken, devout Christian who frequently quoted Bible verses in his monthly missives to inmates, would depart the DeSantis administration before the January start of the 2022 legislative session. Inch had been absent from the Capitol halls, sending top aides --- including Dixon --- to House and Senate committees to make budget presentations.

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has been heavily involved in criminal-justice issues, praised Inch in a Twitter post Friday.

“The loss of Mark Inch as the Secretary of the @FL_Corrections is a huge loss for the State, the corrections officers, those incarcerated, and their loved ones. He is one of the hardest working, knowledgeable, and most honorable people I have ever worked with. Godspeed General,” Brandes tweeted.

Simpson issued blistering criticism of Inch in September, at least in part because of differences about a plan to shutter and consolidate aging prisons and redirect cost savings toward salary increases for corrections officers.

“I think there’s a leadership crisis at the top,” Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is running for state agriculture commissioner next year, told The News Service of Florida at the time.

In the spring, the Senate --- at Simpson’s behest --- included in its budget proposal a plan to shutter and demolish four prisons. The final budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, however, allowed the corrections department to shut down one prison and provide a plan for the closure to legislative leaders by the end of the year.

Months after the end of the legislative session, Inch’s department announced that it was temporarily closing two prisons --- New River Correctional Institution in Bradford County and Baker Correctional Institution in Baker County --- due to staffing shortages. The agency also announced in August that it was keeping closed a prison in Cross City, which was evacuated due to flooding in Dixie County.

A key legislative panel this month signed off on a plan to keep closed the New River facility, which was built in 1926, and shut down 70 prison dorms throughout the state and redirect the money toward pay increases and hiring bonuses for correctional officers.

Despite his harsh words for Inch’s management of the nation’s third-largest prison system, Simpson gave him a warm farewell.

"I thank General Inch for his decades of service to our state and nation. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have worn the uniform of this country. I wish him health and happiness in his retirement,” Simpson said in a prepared statement Friday.

Since his appointment as deputy secretary in 2015, Dixon “has been responsible for the overall operation of the agency and has worked collaboratively with each program area to ensure the mission and vision of the department were accomplished,” Friday’s announcement from the governor’s office said.

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis praised Dixon in a Twitter post. Patronis said Dixon gave him his first tour of Gulf Correctional Institution more than 10 years ago and described Dixon as “smart, steady and incredibly qualified to lead” the department.

In a September presentation, Dixon warned a House panel about a potential looming disaster because of low officer pay and staffing shortages.

“Here’s the bottom line. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years in this system, in this state. The difference is, back then we had the given resources to do the job right,” Dixon said. “Today, this evening and tonight, many of those officers working in dormitories throughout our state, they have no one to back them up. They’re alone and they’re at the mercy of other inmates --- not staff, but other inmates --- to come to the rescue should other inmates intend to cause them harm.”

--- News Service staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.
Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.