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A positive beginning for jail's new boss

More training for staff and the addition of a cell block for inmates with mental issues are among the changes.

Published September 10, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - Six months ago, when warden Don Stewart walked into the Hernando County Jail, the tension was the first thing he noticed.

Anyone walking through the facility could feel it, he said; now, they don't.

Stewart, a big man with a reputation for fixing stricken jails, came here facing a raft of problems.

There were three suicides in the months before he took over. One inmate escaped. A guard was arrested for stealing from inmates. The staff was paid less and trained less than any other jail or prison staff in the area.

In February, the Hernando County Commission held meetings to consider terminating its $10-million operating contract with Corrections Corporation of America. The crisis brought the trouble into focus. It brought attention and visits from CCA executives. And, ultimately, it brought Don Stewart.

"I love a challenge," Stewart said when he arrived from Oklahoma. "There are people who just want everything smooth - 'Don't put anything in front of me, and I'll be happy.' That's not me."

So how has he done? Here's a brief scorecard.

The No. 1 goal was preventing suicides and escapes. There haven't been any of those since he took over.

County leaders seem happy.

"We've seen a progression of improvements," County Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden said. "You've always got situations that will probably come up. What's good with what we have is that everything seems to be - they're on top of it."

County Administrator Gary Kuhl agreed.

"The impression I have is that things are operating well over there," Kuhl said. "I have been very pleased."

Stewart, who makes about $117,000 a year, came to town talking about the need for a diversion program that would take mentally ill inmates out of the criminal justice system and get them help.

That program is still far off, Stewart said.

But the problem of mentally ill prisoners, who are some of the greatest suicide risks, is very much part of everyday life at the jail. When states started cutting back on mental health services and closing institutions, jails and prisons became dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

Five to 10 percent of the inmates in Hernando, Stewart estimates, are "borderline questionable" about whether they have committed a crime or have "got off their medication" and just need to be stored somewhere.

To address a small part of this, the jail has created a cell block for inmates who are not suicidal but have mental issues. It has 24 beds. A mental health counselor has been added to the jail.

Another major problem the jail faced was the low pay, low training and low morale of its staff.

In January, only 49 percent of the guards had passed the state certification. That was the lowest figure of any jail or prison in the area.

Uncertified employees, or officers-in-training, started at $20,800 a year. Certified officers started at $28,997. Those were the lowest salaries of any guards in the region.

Now, Stewart said, 75 percent of the officers are certified. The uncertified officers get $27,000 a year, and the certified ones start at $32,218 a year.

Significant increases, they were accomplished by changing from an eight-hour to a 12-hour shift where guards log 36 hours one week and 48 hours the next, including eight hours of overtime.

The higher number of certified officers was bolstered by sending people to the corrections academy full time instead of having them work part time while they attend school.

This is not to say that all the problems on the staff have gone away. In April, it was discovered that a male inmate had logged hours of phone calls to a female guard's home. She was fired after her arrest on charges that included introducing contraband into the jail.

And throughout the past six months, a significant number of guards have left in what amounts to a small purge.

Some have been fired for rough handling of inmates or violating other protocols.

One supervisor was fired for having a sexual relationship with one of his employees.

Others have just grown tired and quit.

"Some of the folks who have been here and gone on have gone on because they were being held accountable," Stewart said. "Some of the folks who've moved on don't like the new management philosophy. The philosophy is going to be, 'We are going to perform at a very high level.' "

In addition to upgrading the staff, the Hernando jail has put in a system to make sure that guards do their job.

In two of the three suicides last winter, the inmates were not checked on for more than two hours before they died. Now, guards carry an electric wand they have to touch to the outside of the cells to demonstrate they have made their rounds.

Where there were once significant backlogs in fingerprinting inmates, those backlogs have now been reduced.

Still, lapses have occurred.

In July, the jail realized that it had accidentally released an inmate more than two months before his sentence was complete. That inmate, Joel G. Ford, 22, was brought back to the jail to serve the rest of his time - before having his sentence reduced.

Tactical and even cosmetic changes have also been made at the jail.

The inside walls of the facility got a new coat of gray paint. The jail put an officer in the lobby to search everyone coming into the secure part of the jail. A chase car was put in the parking lot to guard against escapes and keep an eye on the outside of the facility.

Some of the changes have been aimed at improving morale among inmates. Video games are now available in the work-release part of the jail, and basketball and handball courts have been added to the recreation yard, Stewart said.

Still, the specter of the suicides and the escape hangs over the jail.

"Escapes are unacceptable. Rapes are unacceptable. Unnatural deaths are unacceptable," Stewart said. "Do they happen? Yes. Is it likely that at some point, someday, somewhere down the line that they may happen again at the Hernando County Jail? The answer to that question is it's possible."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at or 352 754-6114.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 07:14:25]

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