Hillsborough jail abuse panel begins its work

On the agenda: staff screening, training and the rules on force.

By Abbie VanSickle, Times Staff Writer
Published March 11, 2008

TAMPA - An outside panel investigating the Hillsborough County jail agreed Monday to begin by looking at staff screening, staff training and rules governing the use of force.

One panel member, County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, also said he wants to take a closer look at the jail's wheelchair policy.

"I'd like to see how they treat a guy like me," said Higginbotham, who uses a wheelchair because of injuries suffered 13 years ago in a hunting accident.

Monday marked the first meeting of the Independent Review Commission on Jails, a group formed after recent claims of abuse.

In setting an agenda for the next meeting, panel members decided to learn more about how detention deputies are hired and trained. They talked about inviting a law enforcement psychologist to discuss techniques for profiling job candidates.

Much of the daylong meeting focused on giving the panel a general understanding of the jail system and the facility, a sprawling campus on Orient Road near Adamo Drive.

The panel, which includes experts in mental health issues and law enforcement as well as a state board member for the American Civil Liberties Union, heard from sheriff's officials, including Sheriff David Gee and Col. David Parrish, who oversees the jail.

Gee encouraged the panel to focus on policies and procedures, management and training improvements. He asked members to take a broad look at the facility, rather than to focus on specific cases, to "help bolster the public's confidence" in the jail.

Parrish gave them a tour of the jail, proudly offering detailed explanations along the way, including a trip through Central Booking.

The booking area, the gateway to the county jail, is where a deputy dumped a quadriplegic man from his wheelchair. Hillsborough sheriff's officials have publicly apologized for the treatment of the inmate, Brian Sterner. The deputy, Charlette Marshall-Jones, resigned last month.

That incident was followed by other public claims of mistreatment by detention deputies.

Parrish described booking as "the most overtaxed area of the jail system." Several panel members said they planned to return to Central Booking to observe.

One of the handful of local residents who attended the meeting was Al Mccray, 56, of Tampa.

Mccray, who was arrested in 2001, accused of cruelty to children as an out-of-state fugitive, told the panel he was put into a holding cell and taunted because he refused to sign medical forms without reading them.

He said he complained to the Sheriff's Office about his treatment and was pleased with the response. But his experience spurred him to become a community activist.

"I'm a pro-law enforcement person, but you shouldn't go to jail and be punished. Jail is punishment," he said.

The panel, scheduled to meet again March 21, is expected to prepare an initial report by May 9 and a final report within six months.

Times photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813-226-3373.