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Larger jail to benefit company

A $17.5-million expansion to relieve crowding will allow CCA to make millions housing federal inmates.

Published May 18, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - A walk through the Hernando County Jail tells the story.

Inmates sleep inside cells, as well as outside, on stacked bunks or on cots. The sprawling arrangement cuts into the living space alloted to each inmate to such a degree that the jail is in violation of state and industry standards, according to jail officials.

Holding cells, 13.5 feet by 8 feet, sometimes house up to 30 detainees. Those cells were meant for at most half that many. Because of the space crunch, true segregation of the hardest criminals is all but impossible.

"We are over capacity," said Cathy Sullivan, the jail's quality assurance director and public information officer. "And we have been for at least the last year."

Although an increased jail population has, to date, not resulted in more violence among inmates or attacks on corrections officers, the greater the crowding, the greater the likelihood of disciplinary problems.

Relief will come with a multimillion-dollar jail expansion. The county has issued $11,095,000 in bonds to create capacity for 242 new beds in addition to the existing 302. Interest on the bonds will bring the total cost of the project to about $17.5-million.

The jail is owned by the county. But since it opened in 1988, it has been run by Corrections Corporation of America, a company that helped spearhead prison privatization nationwide. The company charges the county a fixed, daily rate for each inmate it houses.

Some critics have called the jail expansion nothing more than a huge public subsidy of a private company.

As a result of the expansion, CCA will not only benefit by housing more county inmates, who have priority, but also could see as much as $2-million in the first year from putting federal detainees in some of the beds created.

Current trends indicate that in three to five years, county inmates will fill the beds CCA will initially use for federal detainees.

County Purchasing and Contracts director Jim Gantt said those opposed to the expansion are missing the broader picture when they accuse county leaders of handling public money irresponsibly.

Rather, Gantt said, they should aim their criticism at get-tough-on-crime legislation, more conservative courts and stricter sentencing guidelines that in the past two decades have led to a surge in the number of Americans behind bars.

"We have to have the facilities," said Gantt, who heads the jail expansion project. "If the mind-set of the public is to put people in jail, we need to have a place to put them."

When harsher sentencing and stricter laws, particularly as applied to drug crimes, came into vogue in the 1980s, CCA was there to take advantage. Founded in Nashville, Tenn., in 1983, the company now runs 64 corrections facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia. It reported a net income of nearly $142-million in 2003.

The company has prospered as the number of Americans incarcerated climbed steadily.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.2-million people were behind bars in the United States in 2002, the last year for which complete figures are available.

In Florida, the number of people in state and county corrections facilities grew from nearly 102,000 in 1994 to more than 132,000 in 2003, an increase of nearly 30 percent.

During the same period, the number of county inmates in the Hernando jail grew from an annual average of 153 to 280, an increase of more than 83 percent.

The role of higher incarceration rates in combating crime is a hotly debated issue. Few, however, dispute that the tougher policies that are popular with the public have also led to the crowding of prisons and jails.

"It has been the result of sentencing policy," said Ryan King, a research associate at the Washington, D.C. Sentencing Project, an organization that supports alternatives to incarceration. "More people are going to prison, and when they do, they are doing more time."

That works to the advantage of private prison industry.

Though CCA's official line, given by Sullivan, is that the company just applies the rules as they exist and has no interest in creating stricter criminal laws and tougher sentencing guidelines, their actions suggest otherwise.

The company, through its political action committee, routinely donates to tough-on-crime lawmakers. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, CCA has given $37,000 to federal candidates in the 2004 election cycle, with 92 percent of the money going to Republicans. Among its donations: $1,000 to Republican House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's U.S. Senate campaign.

"They need to have people in jails, that's how they make money," the Sentencing Project's King said. "Less people in prison means less money for CCA."

While county leaders have little or no control over the state and federal policies that feed this trend, the practices of the local judiciary can have a major impact, as they have with the Hernando jail.

In September, Judge Peyton Hyslop was barred by his colleagues from hearing felony first appearances because of a tendency to set low bail amounts or release those arrested on their own recognizance. In January, Judge Jack Springstead decided to hold felony trials twice a month instead of once.

Since then, the county jail has seen a surge in inmates that has helped push it over capacity and keep it there. Aggressive policing under County Sheriff Richard Nugent has also led to more arrests, which has also helped feed the growth.

"God bless the sheriff. God bless the judges," the CCA's Sullivan said. "They are bringing them in."

CCA charges $48.16 per county inmate per day. In the 2003 fiscal year, the county paid the company more than $4.5-million to house prisoners. The federal government pays CCA $42.50 per prisoner per day to house detainees. The county gets $5 of that, and in fiscal year 2003 was paid more than $143,000 for putting up federal inmates.

When the jail expansion is completed in March 2005, it is projected that county inmates will take up about 400 beds, meaning CCA will be able to house 144 federal detainees. As recently as 2002, before a surge in the number of county inmates, the jail regularly held more than 100 federal detainees on a daily basis. In April, the last month for which figures are available, that figure had dropped to 24.

Given historical trends, CCA's Sullivan said, filling the 144 beds with federal prisoners would not be a problem. Because the county also sees some revenue from the practice, it is likely to go along.

Using the 144-bed figure and at the present rate charged, CCA stands to be paid $2,233,800 for housing federal detainees in the year after the jail expands.

The county would get $262,800 of that amount. Within a few years, however, as the number of county inmates grows, revenue from federal detainees will decrease.

- Times staff researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to

[Last modified May 17, 2004, 20:30:00]

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