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County ready to ease inmate squeeze

Expansion plans for Hernando's jail are set in motion, as the above-capacity population grows faster than anticipated.

By DUANE BOURNE
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- The washing machines in the laundry room churn all day.

In the hallway leading there, foot traffic bottlenecks at times.

Food carts meander from the kitchen past nervous people crammed into a room no bigger than a bathroom. They wait for their first televised day in court.

It's a normal day at the Hernando County Jail -- at least as normal as it can be in a facility where space is at a premium.

Officials say that with all of the growth in Hernando County, it seems the only thing not growing is the jail.

But a remedy -- an expansion -- is in sight.

Since October, Hernando County purchasing director Jim Gantt said, the county has been working to "get things in the pipeline" for the expansion. That has included putting money in the budget that was allocated in the county's capital improvements plan several years ago.

Last week, the county began advertising for architectural engineering firms and contractors, with hopes that the $8-million to $10-million project, which will be financed with a bond issue, can take shape within the next two years.

The county identified expansion of the jail as a priority in its five-year plan in 2000, when statistics showed that the jail's population was growing at an annual rate well past the anticipated 6 percent, said Gantt.

That, coupled with a 29 percent increase in Hernando County's population since the jail was built in 1988 and a more proactive Sheriff's Office, has forced the county to address concerns of jail overcrowding now, before the situation becomes dire, said Gantt.

"The county has always known that the facility could be expanded," Gantt said, adding that when the county purchased the property on which the jail is built -- west of U.S. 41 on Spring Hill Drive -- officials considered buying additional land for the future.

As it turns out, there is plenty of space on land the county already owns. Plans call for an eight-unit "hub," identical to the existing one, to be built on a ball field on the east side of the existing structure. It will have 200 to 250 beds.

Gantt said taxpayers are getting a good deal on the plan because the debt will be paid over 20 years.

"What people need to understand is that the cost of building the facility over a 20-year period is very minor compared to the cost of operation, which will be in excess of $100-million (over the same period)," he said.

Currently, the jail holds between 325 and 350 inmates a day, including inmates managed by government agencies such as the U.S. Marshal's Service.

That number is well over the jail's 302-inmate capacity, said warden Kevin Watson, an employee of Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that manages the jail.

The rising number of inmates, including people who serve weekend sentences, over the past five years has forced officials to eliminate roughly 30 immigration services inmates they had been holding and to reduce the number of U.S. marshal's inmates from 120 to 110, Watson said.

The shrinking U.S. marshal's population has forced the county to dig deeper into its pocket to finance jail operations because it lost revenue gained from those inmates. The county charges the marshal's service $42.52 per inmate per day, with $5 used to offset basic operating costs.

A tour of the jail shows signs of congestion from the moment inmates are booked.

Called the pulse of the facility, nearly 6,000 people were escorted past the wooden desk used to begin the booking process last year, an increase of 15 percent from 2001, according to Cathie Sullivan, the jail's public information officer.

On a recent day, 33 inmates lined up along the yellow line in front of the booking desk, awaiting transport to court for trial.

Down the hall, brown paper bags containing the belongings of inmates are jammed onto shelves. Inmates' possessions are kept for 30 days after first appearance. But with the steady flow of inmates, corrections officers must constantly reorganize the bags, placing some on carts and in every available nook of the dank, rectangular room. The three rooms where inmates meet with their lawyers are tight, too.

"Obviously, there is a space issue," said Sullivan.

Upstairs, a library doubles as an activity room, squeezing in three programs a day. Religious services are held there, too.

"We can't do as much because we don't have enough room to accommodate what we want to do up here," said programs coordinator Sheryle Brown.

There were other signs of cramped quarters.

In the medical ward, seven cells hold inmates on solitary confinement and juveniles who by law cannot interact with the adult population.

That appears to leave only a couple beds open for inmates needing medical attention.

"But that's it," said assistant warden Robert Mercier. "If they can't be in the normal jail population, they are housed here because there is no place to put them. There is no true segregation area. You can't place people anywhere without them coming in contact with other people."

Unlike traditional correctional facilities, some cell doors are left open at the Hernando jail. Hulking metal bunk beds are too big to close the doors, so some inmates sleep outside their cells.

The bunks are lined up in front of the cells, crowding a day area where inmates congregate and are served their meals.

While using bunks allows for 42 additional inmates to be held, Mercier said the situation presents health and control issues for the inmates and the roughly 110 jail employees. He said the jail has reached critical levels, based on American Correctional Association standards for open space.

Those are concerns that jail officials hope will be remedied with the expansion project.

The situation should mean more room and better safety for inmates, Watson said.

There is no doubt in Watson's mind that the expansion is needed. "You just can't place (inmates) on the floor," he said.

-- Duane Bourne covers law enforcement and emergency services in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbourne@sptimes.com.

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