Ricky Dixon started at the bottom, now he’s here — overseeing the Florida Department of Corrections’ 67 aging prison facilities.
The move comes 25 years after Dixon got his start with DOC as a corrections officer. Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat and retired NYPD officer, said that breadth of experience is why he’s supporting Dixon’s appointment.
“You have a feel as to what is needed to be done. (With) 25 years in the system, I think that this gentleman brings a lot to the table,” Torres said. “With his leadership, we’re going to have some changes and some other things move forward.”
The Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Tuesday confirmed the interim DOC Secretary’s official appointment.
One of Dixon’s most pressing challenges will be what to do about crumbling infrastructure within the country’s third-largest prison system. Last month, Dixon told the Senate Committee that DOC employees and inmates are being packed into inadequate, overpopulated facilities, and programs known to reduce recidivism — like vocational and educational training — are not being offered.
Poor conditions and inadequate pay are pushing officers to better-paid county jobs or to seek better pay out of state. Most of Florida’s prisons predate the interstate system, leaving them scattered, often remotely throughout the state. Many don’t even have air conditioning.
Dixon asked the Senate to budget $5 million for a prison modernization study. He didn’t get it.
“We didn’t need to spend $5 million on a study to figure out we have 67 completely inefficient, dilapidated structures that need to be replaced with better ones that are better for all parties,” Sen. Jason Pizzo said.
Dixon wanted the DOC to move toward having fewer, more modern facilities. While the DOC budget doesn’t include his $5 million ask for a study, senators did earmark $1.3 billion to construct two new, 4,500-bed prisons.
“These efficient, state-of-the-art facilities will be safe both for the officers and inmates and will allow us to close older, less efficient facilities and save on maintenance repair dollars,” Committee Chair Sen. Keith Perry said. “We’re at five-year-lows in terms of prison population so this is the best time to prepare for the future.”
Another $400 million of the $7.7 billion budget is going to build two new hospitals. And employees are getting a raise. The starting salary will be around $41,600, up from $33,500. Perry said room was cleared for the raises by eliminating 2,300 of the state system’s 5,000 vacancies.
“We have to meet some basic needs. One is we have to have proper staffing,” Dixon said. “I’m so grateful that it is being done. But we can’t expect to have a great degree of success with an extreme number of vacancies.”
Dixon said he has seen it all in Florida prisons. He has worked in 11 all across the state, including in three as warden before heading to Tallahassee to serve as the regional director for Panhandle prisons. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Dixon as interim DOC Secretary in November.
Dixon said his primary concern is public safety. That includes making sure to turn out a “better citizen than came to us.” He said that means positive reinforcement, education and vocational programs, and reducing idle time for prisoners.
“We shield the public from some very dangerous individuals. But knowing 85% of those individuals will someday get out and return to Florida communities, I take equally as serious the responsibility we have to shield the public from future victimization,” Dixon said. “I would argue that we do that by doing exactly what our title implies — correcting bad behavior.”