Reforms at Hillsborough jails are overshadowed by abuse incidents

By Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer
Published March 5, 2008

TAMPA -- The man who oversees Hillsborough jails wishes more people would visit.

Col. David Parrish welcomed scrutiny long before a deputy was videotaped dumping a man from his wheelchair, an incident that sparked three weeks of complaints aimed at jail employees.

And he welcomes it still.

"If I could take 1.2-million people through the jail," he said Monday after showing his Orient Road facility to a disability advocacy group, "all my problems would be solved."

In 26 years of running Hillsborough County's jails, Parrish has drawn the respect of peers locally, nationally and internationally.

His personnel file contains roughly 250 pages of accolades and letters of thanks from people who have toured his jails and sought to duplicate elements of them elsewhere. He has attained one of his profession's highest honors and is widely considered an innovator, a man who strikes a difficult balance between doing what's right for inmates and for employees.

"He is thought of as 'the guy,'" said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman.

But with one year until retirement, Parrish now faces a challenge unlike any he has tackled -- a battle against a negative image of jails that he spent his career trying to improve.

He has canceled all trips. He has spent hours reviewing video in the wake of now seven publicly aired complaints by former inmates. He has tried to calm the concerns of his employees, even spending a 12-hour shift doing the job that booking deputies do.

His message is the same: "Come in and take a look," he said Monday. "We've got nothing to hide."

* * *

Parrish joined the Sheriff's Office in 1974. Until he arrived, at age 27, no one else on staff had a master's degree.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, he aspired to go into law enforcement, though he isn't sure why. His mother was a teacher. His father was a printer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

No one in the family even carried guns, he said.

After earning a bachelor's degree in history from Pennsylvania State University in 1968, he served four years in the Navy.

But he was 5-foot-7, with less-than-perfect vision. Police departments in the 1970s turned him away. Then, three days before Parrish was scheduled to report for a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hillsborough Sheriff Malcom Beard hired him to be a planning, research and training officer.

He ascended to major in four years. In 1981, another sheriff, Walter Heinrich, asked him to oversee the jails, a job that now pays $135,892. In that role, Parrish has served two more sheriffs, Cal Henderson and David Gee.

The jails evolved from an ill-attended hodgepodge of city- and county-run facilities to a standard setter, drawing attention for progress, not controversy.

* * *

The first time Parrish explained it to him, Henderson thought his colleague needed to be committed.

Parrish proposed doing away with traditional cells, instead housing inmates in a dormitory style room, with one or two deputies keeping an eye on things from inside each pod.

"It sounded completely crazy to me," said Henderson, who had not yet been elected sheriff.

But Parrish managed to persuade Heinrich, and later Henderson to support a detention philosophy called "direct supervision."

Less expensive than barred cells, the method allows one-on-one contact. Given more respect -- treated humanely -- inmates behave better, Parrish says.

The recent allegations of jail abuse evoke an irony that doesn't escape the notice of Parrish or even unlikely supporters.

"It certainly is inconsistent with the man that he is," said Julianne Holt, public defender for Hillsborough County, speaking of the recent jail video.

Holt said Parrish has responded to inmate needs.

"I think he gets up every day to make a difference," Holt said.

* * *

"In this business," Parrish once said, "you get to the end of the day and if nothing goes wrong, you're a hero."

Last year, the jails received two complaints of deputy brutality, Gee said, noting that about 72,200 people were booked.

Under Parrish, staff has grown from 500 to 1,500 and inmates from 1,200 a day to 4,000. Once plagued by overcrowding, the system has been under capacity for years. Parrish won support to build the Orient Road Jail in 1990 and, his greatest source of pride, Falkenburg Road Jail in 1998.

In 1997, he received the highest award given by the American Correctional Association. He has traveled to Israel, Australia, South Korea and throughout the United States, giving advice on jail planning and operation.

But he knows the dark times are the ones that generate the most news coverage.

He weathered criticism in 1988, when jail workers discovered four days had passed before anyone noticed an inmate had vanished.

In 2004, an inmate gave birth to a stillborn baby in a toilet after she said she pleaded for medical help. Parrish was horrified but said the experience inspired better medical care for inmates.

This time, the allegations of abuse spread so fast -- and to all parts of the world -- that Parrish was blind-sided. But he expects growth to come here, too.

"It's going to be painful," he said, "but in the long run, it's going to improve the operation."

Attorney John Trevena represents quadriplegic Brian Sterner, whose booking video began the recent wave of criticism.

Trevena said it doesn't matter how many accolades Parrish or his jails have drawn.

"I think all of that evaporated when Hillsborough County became an international symbol for inmate abuse," Trevena said.

"He should resign."

Parrish supporters say that many of the abuse allegations are exaggerated.

The jails chief concurs.

"We don't have culture of abuse," Parrish said. "We've worked really hard the other way to be a model for -- it's not coddling inmates -- but its treating them like human beings."

* * *

Two Saturdays ago, a jail worker buttoned up a short-sleeved white shirt and reported to booking at Orient Road.

For 12 hours, until 1 a.m., he fingerprinted inmates, patted them down, inventoried their belongings, took mug shots and sat through medical screenings.

Except for the insignia on his collar, no inmate could have known the 61-year-old man was not just any detention deputy; rather, a chief looking for insight.

Parrish admits the latest accusations have a personal sting.

But he has found a surprising spiritual peace that helps him keep things in perspective.

"The end of a very good career -- to watch it basically circling like this is very rough," he said. "But I know I didn't do anything deliberately wrong."

Times staff writer Bill Varian and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.


Col. David Parrish