Hernando County's takeover of jail brings year of sweeping changes

By John Woodrow Cox and Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writers

In Print: Sunday, August 28, 2011

BROOKSVILLE Maj. Michael Page shook his head.

When the 39-year corrections veteran led the Sheriff's Office in its takeover of the Hernando County Detention Center last August, most of the 177 employees from the private company that had run the facility applied for new jobs.

Page interviewed every one of those applicants. He hired just 45 of them.

As he thought back on Thursday to the transition, the major said most of those he rejected either failed background checks or just didn't meet his standards.

"Frankly," Page said, "I don't understand why a few of them weren't in jail."

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the takeover. Since then, Page has made sweeping changes. He's upgraded the jail's technology, overhauled its security and cut significant costs all with 39 fewer staff members than Corrections Corporation of America, which had managed the facility for 22 years.

Still, the jail faces considerable challenges that officials say CCA left behind. The same major maintenance problems that last year erupted into controversy are still not fixed, and it's unclear whether the money set aside by the County Commission will be enough to build a planned new standalone medical facility and cover the numerous repairs ahead.

Most of the physical problems could have been avoided, Page said, if CCA had just honored its agreement with the county.

"If they had performed routine maintenance as they should have and as their contract required," he said, "this building would look 10 times better."

Because of the unresolved maintenance questions, the county withheld a $1.8 million final payment to CCA and has been sued in federal court by the company. That case is not yet resolved.

While concerns about the facility's future still linger, one thing has changed dramatically the way the jail operates.

Their hands and feet shackled, five men wearing orange jumpsuits shuffled through a sally port and placed their backs against a wall.

Soon, they would have their mug shots snapped and their fingerprints taken before being assigned a cell.

When CCA ran the jail, outgoing inmates left through the same sally port. Placing the entrance and exit all in the same spot, Page said, was dangerous and in one case led to a prisoner's escape.

"Scary as hell," he called the design.

Page changed that soon after taking over. Now, inmates leaving the jail are processed in an entirely separate part of the building.

"It keeps the traffic from mingling," Page said, "and people going out who are supposed to be going in,"

Security upgrades spot the facility's landscape.

A strip of black and yellow tape runs along the inside of each cell block, about 10 to 15 feet between the living area and the door. The inmates are not allowed to step over the tape. The windows are also one-way, allowing guards to look in but restricting inmates from peering out.

When deputies took over, neither of those features existed.

"They were watching us," he said, "more than we were watching them."

Jail officials spent $156,000 to install about 1,000 new locks. They also fitted the doors with scanners that allow staffers to monitor which employees go where, how often and at what time.

Near the intake area, a metal cabinet is mounted to a wall inside a small room. The inconspicuous $7,000 box holds all of the facility's keys. Deputies type a PIN code into the machine, which then dispenses the key they need. That allows jail officials to know who has what key at all times.

CCA, in contrast, used a paper log that cost thousands of dollars in clerical work to maintain.

That process, Page said, did little to prevent keys from being misplaced. In fact, during an interview with a former CCA employee, the man told the major he kept a set of jail keys at his home.

Page runs the jail with 138 employees more than 20 percent less than CCA and said he can do it for two reasons: One, his staff is more efficient; two, the jail now employs far better technology.

That technology, along with other efforts, has generated large cost savings, despite the fact that the jail budget was based on serving 540 inmates. It houses now an average of 600.

Officials paid about $150,000 to install jail management system software. Now, everything once written in paper logs is recorded on an integrated computer system. Page estimated the technology, which eliminated the need for three clerical positions, has already paid for itself.

The system also makes it much easier to keep track of inmates' money. When inmates leave jail, they now receive a debit card. Under CCA, inmates were given checks.

All medical records have also been automated, which allows the jail's nursing staff to operate more efficiently.

In the infirmary, staffers have found several areas of savings, including a pharmacy in Tampa that has a return policy because it provides medications in blister packs. That means if an inmate needs a prescription but leaves before using all of the medication, the jail can return it.

The jail staff has also arranged to have some medical services performed in-house, such as ultrasound tests for the half-dozen or so pregnant inmates the jail might have at any one time.

Dental work is done using a mobile dentist who brings equipment to the jail. That saves money and the staff time previously required to transport inmates. Officials said it's also much more secure than taking inmates out into the community for procedures.

The kitchen staff has also found savings. Hot breakfast meals were replaced with cold ones. Now, the average meal costs 84 cents. Sgt. James Johnston, who's in charge of the kitchen, has also made deals with several farmers to pick up and use their produce before it expires.

Even the mailing process is less expensive. Inmates may send only postcards, which makes it far easier for employees to inspect outgoing letters.

From the beginning of the changeover, Page has also emphasized work programs in the community. Low-risk, nonviolent inmates tackle projects inside and outside the jail several times a week. Page said at least one five-member crew works somewhere in the county every day.

The crews have done public tasks ranging from helping maintain the Spring Hill waterfall to cleaning up at Spring Hill Cemetery and providing trash collection and lawn cutting at various locations.

In total, with an annual jail budget of $10.9 million, jail officials say they're saving taxpayers more than $1 million this year, compared to what CCA would have charged the county.

Much of that, Page said, comes through the inmate fees his staff has collected. Jail officials have turned over $242,374 this fiscal year. In CCA's last fiscal year, the company turned over just $36,887.

Because CCA didn't make money from those fees, Page said, the corporation wasn't motivated to collect them.

"If I make money doing it, I do it. If I don't make money, I don't do it," Page said of CCA's mentality. "It's a great business model."

In March 2010, then-Sheriff Richard Nugent told county commissioners he was interested in taking over the jail and that he could run it more cost-effectively. But by mid-April, after he had examined the facility more closely, he told commissioners he was no longer interested because of serious maintenance problems there.

A slide show prepared for commissioners was loaded with images of rusted doors, windows discolored and compromised by long-term water damage, cracked walls and floors, ceiling tiles and walls bubbled and stained by leaks from a faulty roof.

Ultimately, Nugent agreed to the takeover. But many of the same maintenance problems he pointed out still exist, including the clouded windows, the rusted-out doors and door hinges and water intrusion from roof leaks and design flaws.

An exercise yard that drains inside an inmate housing pod is still unfixed. When the rain comes, sand bags and spray foam fill the gaps.

Page said that the structural fixes were the third of his three priorities behind security and health-safety and soon the county will be moving to make those needed repairs.

"We're a whole lot closer," he said, "than we have been before."

As for the leaking from the exercise yard, Page said, "That's got to come out."

The hallway leading to the housing pod is known as the "canal" because, Page said, "it leaks from just about everywhere.''

Craig Becker, the county's head of maintenance, would not provide specifics on work done and still to be done because the county remains in litigation with CCA.

Becker did say that a proposal to make the needed repairs will be prepared and sent to the commission within the next three months.

The County Commission allocated $3 million from its reserves for jail repairs. Aside from the $156,000 for new locks, those funds so far have paid for a $239,000 engineering study and a $25,000 dish-washing machine, as well as a variety of other repair projects, according to George Zoettlein, the county's budget manager.

Also coming out of that fund is an estimated $1.5 million to build a freestanding medical unit for the jail. Last week, the commission approved negotiations with a Tallahassee firm, Allstate Construction, to build that facility. Allstate's bid was $2.1 million, but the county's procurement chief, Russell Wetherington, said there isn't enough in the budget for that and there would be serious negotiations with the firm beginning this week.

Page reiterated that last week, saying there was no way the facility would top $2 million.

The freestanding medical unit will allow the existing infirmary to be converted into a much-needed housing area for juveniles, who cannot be kept with adults. The new 6,000-square-foot facility, which will be built behind the jail on asphalt intended as a basketball court, will increase medical bed capacity and provide isolation rooms, negative-air provisions and suicide-watch rooms.

If the county is able to negotiate the cost for the facility down to the $1.5 million budgeted, approximately $900,000 of the $3 million set aside for repairs will remain, Zoettlein said.

Page said sheriff's officials had done their research and knew what they were getting when the takeover occurred last August. Still, he said, it was disappointing to see the disrepair in a building that could have been in much better shape had it only been maintained.

"CCA is proud of the 22-year partnership we had with Hernando County a partnership that provided local taxpayers significant cost savings while meeting and exceeding the highest industry standards,'' said CCA spokesman Steve Owen in an e-mail. "Our facility consistently met the Florida Model Jail Standards and maintained national accreditation by the American Correctional Association, the independent, gold standard for quality and professional correctional management in the country.''

Page, an auditor with the American Correction Association, said the facility was in such poor shape 18 months ago, it would have failed his inspection.

His biggest surprise a year into operating the jail?

"It's still standing,'' Page said.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.