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Retired Hillsborough jail operator still sweet on inmates

TAMPA — Col. David Parrish ran Hillsborough County's jails for more than a quarter century. Now he's retired. In his current role, inmates never face the threat of a Taser. Instead, they are baked and iced.

This time of year, the former jailer makes gingerbread cookies and decorates some of them like prisoners, each with black-and-white icing stripes. Some are blond with blue eyes; others, red-headed or brunet. Tiny bells dangle from ankle chains.

"You gotta understand," he explains. "I only give them to people that work in the corrections business. Otherwise, people would go, 'That's really weird.' "

He admits he's a little warped.

"I spent my whole adult life in jail," says Parrish, 67.

He has plenty of like-minded friends who eat cookies. He travels the country as a corrections expert, having long ago overseen the evolution of Hillsborough jail cells to dormitory settings.

He baked even before his 2008 retirement. He's been at it for nearly two decades.

He started off wanting to treat the toll takers he saw each day on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway on trips between the Orient Road jail, where he worked, and the Ybor City headquarters for the Sheriff's Office.

"I dug out my mother's old recipe for making gingerbread men when I was a little kid. She used to make giant gingerbread men about 10 inches tall. We were all allowed to have one appendage before breakfast."

In the old days, his mother, Ruth "Tia" Parrish, cut gingerbread using a cardboard pattern. Parrish uses a giant cookie cutter. Mrs. Parrish baked with Crisco. Parrish substitutes butter.

In a typical year, he goes through 25 pounds of flour.

His wife lends a hand.

"She measures out all the spices and the egg and the hot water and all that stuff, and that takes all the thinking out of it. All I have to do is throw in 6 cups of flour and a cup of sugar and she brings over the butter warmed up and I throw it all together and we got a real production."

He bought an extra oven rack to accommodate inmate overcrowding. Baking sheets hold only two large gingerbread people at a time. He makes 100 to 150, some small.

"They are not beautiful," he says. "They look like they're made by some sixth-grader."

Some are perhaps without arrest records. They wear colorful attire, replete with M&Ms.

He wraps them each in tissue paper, slips them into holiday bags and delivers them around town in a restored two-tone Plymouth P6 sedan, bought new by his grandfather in 1938.

Or he mails them to far-off lands. His mother gets one, outside Philadelphia.

It's a lot of work.

Every year, he says the same thing: This is it. No more.

In truth, he likes it.

"I had people tell me, 'Once you retire, you're going to be in trouble. Your whole life is the jail,' " he recalls.

"I don't hunt. I don't fish. I enjoy doing things like this."

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Retired Hillsborough jail operator still sweet on inmates 12/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 11:07am]
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