The call from Governor Jeb Bush’s Chief of Staff came at 9 o’clock at night. “Can you take over the Florida Correction’s Department at 6 am in the morning?”
“What?” I said. “Let me think about that.”
“No time. Give me an answer. The Governor wants to know. Yes or no.”
A few more words, than this from me. “Well, at least let me talk with my wife, Pat, about it. She’s right here. I’ll call you back in five minutes.”
“You can’t talk about it. Not with her, not with anybody. Yes or no. What is it?”
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
When I showed up at my new office in the morning, I couldn’t go in. It was blocked with “Crime Scene” tape. Later, I got the explanation for the cryptic phone call. The former-Secretary of Corrections at the time of the call to me was talking to his corrupt deputy, who had flipped under duress from the FBI. Wearing a wire under his shirt, he was trying to get the Secretary to say the words that would reduce his own later sentence (he got 3 years). But the FBI was getting anxious that the Secretary was onto the treachery (but not the wire) and was about to whack him (he had invited him to go out on a rowboat with him on a remote prison-grounds lake). They then gave the Governor the courtesy of a quick call (before they moved in) to line up a replacement – under the condition he would not share what was going on. The Secretary didn’t whack anybody that night, but he did get eight years.
So began my introduction to a large organization (28,000 cadre, 95,000 inmates, 155,000 probationers and parolees, 60+ prisons, and another 70 or so work camps, road camps, half-way houses, etc., and a budget of $3.5 billion.) that was corrupted from the head down. Up until that morning I had been Florida’s top drug official (colorfully labeled ‘Drug Czar”) but had recently informed the governor of my intention to retire. Apparently, that didn’t faze him in offering me this new ‘opportunity’.
He did give me the courtesy of holding my initial meeting with senior staff in his conference room (it was a Saturday morning, so no one was there). The meeting with the top 12 department officials that morning was tense; before it ended a phone call came in to the number three honcho in the department hierarchy announcing there had been a prison break in the Panhandle. “How often does that happen?”, I asked. “First time since I’ve been in the department” she answered. It hadn’t taken long for the gauntlet to be thrown down. (It was a fake, a message to the ‘new guy’ – me — that he couldn’t handle the department; we found the two ‘escapees’ four days later hiding in the attic of a warehouse inside the prison, where they had been secreted.) A ‘resistance movement’ had already begun.
The department had been corrupted, but by my estimate at the end of my time there was that only 10 percent or so were so involved. Yet that was enough to make the climate toxic for everyone, not just inmates and offenders, but also for the cadre who were bullied, cajoled, or otherwise threatened to ‘play ball’ (violence by rogue cadre against rival cadre was common, as was inmate abuse). Also corrupted (or dysfunctional) as a result were the many systems that make a corrections system run properly (medical care was poor, food service was abysmal, contracts were chaotic, maintenance was broken, and so on). With this recognition early on, prioritizing became easy. Figure out who the corrupt are and get rid of them, replace them with good people (and there were lots of good people in the department) and fix the operating systems.
Week two began with a meeting called by me of the 400 ranking members of the department (all with nametags) at a central Florida town. At 40 tables of ten apiece (which I scrambled every hour), all were introduced to me as I queried the regional leaders about their agendas and priorities, after which I talked to them from the front of the room about ethics, discipline, and behavior, liberally sprinkled with quotes right out of Bugle Notes (‘an officer on duty knows no one’; ‘…discipline is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment…’). Some were entertained by such ideas (so much so they failed to recognize that among them were strangers who were noting their defiant under-the-breath comments at the tables — and their nametags) which helped me isolate on where to go first. By the end of week five, the first tranche of leader departures (wardens, IG, general counsel, others for a total of 12) ensued, usually on the heels of an early morning visit by me to their presumed fiefdoms.
Some of this was not easy, as rural counties in Florida are bastions of Corrections Department employment, are heavily intermarried or otherwise connected with local law enforcement (Sheriff and Warden brothers-in-law is not uncommon), and not shy about contacting their political benefactors in the Florida legislature. One of the chief goons (think of the movie “On the Waterfront”) was related to a top Florida law enforcement official and the strongest union in Florida represented the prison guards. But bit by bit progress was made, although it took a while to uncover all the rot.
And the rot was extensive if zany at times. For example, inter-prison softball competition (by rival guard teams) had become an obsession. Professional ball players were recruited as ‘officers’ but never pulled a shift. Steroids were smuggled into the prison system. It produced better long-ball hitters and made the dealers some money as well. Monies for the lavish weekend ‘tournaments’ were raised by compelling guards to sell T-shirts with the team logo for $20 apiece (the guards, whose average salary was $32,000 a year, were made to pay for the shirts up front to the supplier – often the warden or another ranking official; he or she then, hopefully, could find family and neighbors to buy them in turn). Thereby, well-funded post-game celebrations, usually at pricey hotels, became wild events, not uncommonly erupting into drunken brawls between teams.
A convicted murderer and inmate, a former doctor who killed for the ‘mob’ and who retained substantial wealth in his outside accounts, was caught (by a tapped phone line) paying a former head of the department to ‘engineer’ a prison transfer to be with his lover. The former Secretary in this case saw no problem with that. He was merely working for a client, in his opinion. The transfer didn’t go through. And it became more difficult for him to consult with inmates after I played the tape for him in my office.
It also was dangerous from time to time. On one occasion, we penetrated and broke a drug-smuggling enterprise in a prison in the Florida Panhandle. Prison staff, up to highest level, in cahoots with inmates were trafficking drugs into the prison. We caught on and broke it and on the morning after doing so, I showed up with a new warden I had selected to take over. Although I generally was armed, guns could not be brought into the prison, where I had to go to restore order. The SOP called for me to wear a signal alarm that with the push of a button would bring a response squad of guards on the run and the armed tower guard (with M16) to take a ready-to-fire stance and await my command. As I moved with the new warden through the grounds, a group of about 12 inmates came out of a weight-lifting cage in the exercise yard and came toward us with seeming hostile intent. I hit the button and the new warden hit his. No response. The reaction squad did not appear; a glance at the tower showed me the guard there had abandoned his post. We were on our own. Thanks in large part to the experienced warden who immediately began to berate and threaten with severe sanctions the dozen now face-to-face with us, they hesitated. So, I reinforced the threats and the warden one-upped me. It was enough to give the inmates pause and they backed away. The upshot was we had to fire a bunch more of the staff, something I had planned to do anyway, I removed all heavy weights from the prisons, replacing them with pull up bars and parallel bars and had guards lead what you would recognize as the ‘daily dozen’.
Eighteen months into the effort of reform and de-corruption, a final confrontation was a prison riot in the Everglades, where the rioters were the guards who had gotten drunk, started a bonfire, and moved with weapons to threaten the life of an uncorrupted guard who was about to come off duty; he had reported to me a horrific act by cadre. They failed as we countered with strength, protecting the guard and vectoring about 20 trusted and capable leaders to the prison, even as I called local law enforcement in on the problem. When I reached the threatened guard (with whom I had placed two armed IG agents during the night) I asked what he needed. He asked that I let him go off prison grounds as he had elderly parents that he stopped by to look in every day after shift. And then he wanted to go home, as he was sure it was past time to let his dog out. Both requests were granted, and he was promoted as well.
So, what had happened to cause this particular department to become so dysfunctional? Honor had been abandoned. Employment and especially leadership in the department had come to be seen as opportunity, not duty. Certainly not by all, but by the more ruthless who for a while had their way. Once countered, it was not hard to find the good people, very much in the majority. Many of them had in fact stood up to the oppression during the worst of it. By and by, I reminded all of the guards (who prefer to be called ‘officers’) of their oath of office and had each and every one of them recite it again; I also wrote and printed a wallet-sized card that echoed the tone and commitment to duty of in a manner similar to a soldier’s ‘Code of Conduct’. It was to be memorized and held on the officer’s person at all times.
It is my observation that there are always good people that only want to do their duty and to do it well. All they need is a chance to do so, along with the reinforcing signals and support that it is proper to do. Once able to do that within the Florida Corrections Department, decency and functional systems returned. Whether or not such things last rests in the hands of continued honorable leadership. But the key is honor. Leaders and institutions need to hold honor high and never let it erode.
As for me, I retired (my original plan before the Governor’s call), although two years later than expected. But the good news is that somewhere during that time, Pat forgave me for taking the job without talking to her first. I might add, she could write her own story on this, as we did have to make adjustments in our daily routines.
Phil Clark says
Jim, you tell about how the good guys won, and that’s deeply inspiring. There’s a lot of “duty” and “country” — and “courage” — evident in the story you tell. You sacrificed a lot to take that job, which influenced not only the prison system in one of our most populous states but the climate of society in our country. But indeed it is overwhelmingly a story about the role of “honor” in a critical institution permeating a state with nearly 20 million citizens. Well done!
Ralph Artigliere says
This remarkable story, which took place while I lived in Florida and served as a judge there, demonstrates as much about Jim’s unparalleled abilities to take on a complex, sensitive, and dangerous mission and succeed in seemingly workmanlike but actually quite amazing fashion. I can think of no other person that had the skill and courage to have done this as quickly and effectively. Small wonder Gov. Bush tapped Jim for the task. I am proud to be Jim’s Classmate.
Eric Robyn says
Jim, thanks for sharing this remarkable story of honor … and the courage to do the harder right. It’s 53 years ago today we “bid farewell to cadet grey” and carried those deeply embeded virtues into the Army and wherever we served. I’m looking forward to more of your stories, so keep ’em coming!
Ray Dupere says
Wow! I knew absolutely none of this! I am both amazed at what you accomplished and humbled to think that you and I are brothers. I know that sometimes such questions are hard to answer, but I do wonder how much of the good things that Florida represents today can be traced back to the good things that you accomplished a little over a decade ago? None of us live in a vacuum…the bad in one place seeps into the next and vice versa…the good in one place becomes a light to another. May God bless you abundantly in your retirement.
Jim McDonough says
Well Ray. I thank you for your comments and your blessing, but if the truth were known I think you have done a lot more seeping of light than most. Thank you for all of your kindness in memorializing our fallen in Vietnam. Their lives were so shortened by their sacrifices, it is a great good that you have reminded us of their contributions to our nation. We are indebted to you, as we are to them.
Bruce Wheeler says
Duty, integrity, courage as stated above. Making that decision without consulting with Pat was I’m sure an incredibly difficult decision.
James Richard McDonough says
Not consulting with Pat was also the most dangerous decision in the whole story. Fortunately, she forgave me.
Jack Nesbitt says
I am humbled by the conviction of your commitment to “Honor”. I am proud to be a member of our brotherhood in which you are one of the best examples of the right stuff.
Blessings to you and Pat
Dan Tigges says
Jim. Well done and thank you for sharing your experience. As I am humbled, I know that many of our class have had similar experiences- Reminds me of the sequel to the Shawshank Redemption (1994)!
Geoff Prosch says
When I think of a person with rock-like integrity, star man intellect, selfless service, hard core action, and courage, I think of you. Army Strong.
DENIS GULAKOWSKI says
Jim, an amazing and fascinating story! My exposure to a prison system is limited to Hollywood produced TV shows (and we all know how accurate and realistic they are), so your enlightening story was truly educational. Clearly, the man in charge made the right call and selected the most qualified leader.
Barry Robella says
Jim, your story is both timely and uplifting. I can state unequivocally that you are a classmate that I treasure and admire.
Pete Grimm says
Well done, Jim!
I think we are currently experiencing a crumbling of honor at every level of government. When positions become fiefdoms and largess flows to and from those who hold power, when very concept of selfless service is lost, something critical to the binding and leavening the bread of society is lost. That you were able to restore it in an environment like a state prison system is truly remarkable.
Ron Male says
I’d like to order one of those T-shirts if any are available……
Bob Baldwin says
Reading your story about reforming the FL corrections system took me back to July of ’68 when we were on the Beast detail…you commanding one of the new cadet companies. I’ve forgotten the O-6 who led the officer detail but I’ve never forgotten LTC Tiger Howell, the Deputy. One thing I remember among the many things Tiger said that summer was (after having observed you leading your company) “Yeah, that MACdonough (he put the accent on the MAC) is the real deal!” Howell was right…you are the real deal, Jim! Thanks! Well done!
Jim McDonough says
Bob, TIGER Howell was one of my favorites among the cadre. He was the Deputy 2nd Regiment Commander for at least a year. He could growl with the best of them. In preparation for Beast Barracks, he showed utter disdain for an obstacle course for the incoming Plebes we had prepared. “Call that an OBSTACLE!” was his killing critique. On the 4th of July, my job was to read the name of each State in the Union while the 105 artillery piece fired a blank round for the assembled Plebes after each name. When it was over and I returned to my room with some feeling of success, he entered shortly behind me with a blank but unfired round in his hand and said: “MACdonough, Somewhere out there are a bunch of Plebes completely crushed that their State was left out of the Union today.” He then left the room, round still in hand. I never figured out which one I had skipped over.
Joe Gelineau says
Jim. So impressed and inspired by learning your account of this incredible event. You demonstrated for us and countless others the reality of duty, and honor, and even country. It will require similar selfless performance by so many to turn our Country around. You have shown the way.
Mike Speltz says
Jim, in addition to the sentiments noted by our classmates, your story reminded me how lucky I have been to pursue three very different careers among honorable people serving in honorable organizations. It’s easy to complain when things get tough, but thanks for reminding us to be grateful when things are going our way!
Bob St. Onge says
Jim: I am reminded that you as editor of our Howitzer chose the theme: March to the Sound of the Guns. This inspiring saga underscores your willingness to do so, be it in Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, or state government. Your sense of Honor is matched by your sterling sense of Duty and selfless service. Pat knew that when she married you! You have my deepest respect. Saint
Jim McDonough says
You are very kind in your comments, and I thank you. But I must point out that John Lucas was the editor of our yearbook; I was the associate editor. The selection of the theme was made by several classmates on the Howitzer staff. I should not get credit for the selection. But virtually every one of our classmates during our years on this earth has marched to the sounds of danger, challenge, and risk of one kind or another and tried hard to do so with honor. You are one of those who set the pace.
Judy O'Toole Fahl says
Well done, Jim. Your last job was a whopper of challenges and it sounds like you knew how to get it all organized. I loved reading your memory of taking over the Florida Corrections Department.
Rick Ricker says
Thanks for sharing, Jim…great service!
Paul J Kessenich says
Amazing story, Jim, which, as said earlier, I knew nothing about.
We always will need good, honorable leaders in this country.
Thanks for being one of them in a critical situation in FL.
John Legere says
Amazing story, and an example of your level of duty and honor.
I must quote your book, “Platoon Leader” once a week, when I discuss with people the Vietnam quagmire.