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Security may change

For now, guards at federal prisons don’t have to pass through screenings. Local jail policies vary.

Published June 22, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — Three years ago, the Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office urged the federal Bureau of Prisons to send guards through security screening as they arrive for work to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the prison system.

Bureau of Prisons officials declined the advice, saying such a “major” policy change would hurt employee morale.

Now the agency that runs the nation’s 105 federal institutions is rethinking its position, a day after a Department of Justice agent was shot and killed by a guard at a federal prison in Tallahassee. Guard Ralph Hill smuggled his gun into the prison Wednesday and opened fire as federal agents arrived to arrest him and five other guards on charges of exchanging contraband and money for sex with inmates.

“The misconduct that has occurred in the past, while involving only a minuscule number of staff, has caused us to reconsider this issue,” said Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Carla Wilson in a statement.

Hill, 43, shot and killed William “Buddy” Sentner, 44, an agent with the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office in Orlando, said FBI Special Agent Jeff Westcott. Hill died in the gunfight, but not before also shooting and injuring a Bureau of Prison’s lieutenant whose name hasn’t been released.

Florida’s prison system has faced recent high-profile controversies involving guards smuggling illegal steroids into the state system, and the state Department of Corrections has been sending prison employees through security screening for years.

“It’s kind of surprise to a lot of us, because when you hear federal prison, you think high and mighty,” said Polk County sheriff’s Deputy Gary York. He is a former corrections inspector who spent a dozen years investigating employees and visitors who, despite search policies, have sneaked everything from cell phones to intimate clothing into state prisons.

However, when it comes to employee searches at county jails in the Tampa Bay area, there is less consistency. Employees must walk through metal detectors at the Hernando and Citrus county jails, both run by Corrections Corp. of America, one of the largest private companies managing jails in the nation.

“It’s purely to safeguard the facility,” said Don Stewart, new warden of the Hernando jail.

Yet, jails in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, all run by sheriff’s offices, do not require employees to walk through metal detectors. Officials with all three sheriff’s offices said those policies likely will be reviewed.

“In light of what happened up there, I’m sure we’re going to review our policies and see if that’s something that we might review and put into place in the future,” said Capt. Pete Nesbitt, acting commander of the Pinellas County Jail.

At the Hillsborough County Jail, Maj. Robert Lucas said he didn’t believe the facility would begin screening employees. He said there have been no problems at the jail in the 30 years he has been there.

“At this point we’re not entertaining changing the policy,” Lucas said. “We’ve had no problem here. I think a good part of that is the trust and confidence we have in our staff.”

Lucas said detention deputies’ badges would set off a metal detector, which would mean patdowns and searches that take additional manpower.

“Do we want to make security changes every time something happens around the country?’’ Lucas said.  

Doug Tobin, a spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, said he expects a review of the policy. He said the department currently tries to avoid problems by doing extensive screening of potential employees.

The Orange County Jail, which is operated by county government, also requires all of its employees to pass through a metal detector. Any bags and lunch boxes they carry also are checked, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.

That policy was adopted in 2003 after two employees were arrested for bringing drugs into the facility, Moore said.

“You’d like to think all of your staff is above doing anything like that, but you deal with human beings,” Moore said.

“As we’ve seen in the federal prison system, there are some there that apparently didn’t maintain the high levels of … integrity expected of an officer.”

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 22, 2006, 23:05:38]

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