She's tough now, hardened by three decades of close quarters with criminals, some crazy, some unbelievably cruel and void of conscience.
When Amelia Hoolan first set foot in the Pasco County jail, she was different. Much different.
"I was so sweet,'' she says, "I'd give you a toothache.''
She had never been in a jail when in 1983 Sheriff John Short invited her to interview for a job that had almost always gone to men. She passed through the steel doors, and when they slammed behind her, "the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It scared me.''
She had entered a world she knew little about, a naive young woman from Traverse City, Mich., a forklift operator in a food processing plant where co-workers routinely did illegal drugs and she hadn't a clue.
Thirty years in the jail business changed all that. She became an authority on the criminal's mindset and methods of manipulation. She learned their tricks, how to make a zip gun from a clip pen. "I can hang you with toilet paper,'' she said with a matter-of-fact coolness. She lost innocence to cynicism and relied on her religious faith to level her out.
She beat breast cancer, and in the process learned something special about those other hard-edged deputies who spend every day behind the steel doors that slam. "You can get very crusty and untrusting in this job,'' she observed, "and I was always fighting to get back to the center. When I got sick, my fellow workers comforted me and supported me with a compassion you just don't consider when you think about this line of work. They are what I will miss about the job.''
Hoolan, 57, retired recently as lieutenant in charge of policies. Her boss, Capt. Ray Revell, gave her a broom with a bicycle seat and horn attached because some inmates called her a witch. She not only didn't mind, she liked it. "I can be hard to handle,'' she said. Revell took it a step further: "She's tough. Any woman who started in this career 30 years ago had to be tough.''
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At 6 feet tall, Hoolan excelled in basketball at high school. She also learned to play classical piano. Neither talent carried her beyond the factory job and at 27, she followed her sister Diane to New Port Richey to help with a family emergency. Diane's husband, Pasco sheriff's Deputy Pat Kelley, needed a heart transplant. Hoolan helped watch their kids. Kelley died of pneumonia before he could get a new heart.
Hoolan interviewed at the jail in New Port Richey and signed for $5.35 an hour, one of only five females on staff. She quickly learned the department had a double standard, that corrections officers were held in low regard compared to road deputies and paid less.
Today, 67 of the 300 jail deputies are women, and any disparity in pay and respect between them and road deputies disappeared years ago. When Hoolan joined the force, there were jails in New Port Richey and Dade City with a combined capacity of 174. Today the lone facility in Land O'Lakes has a capacity of 1,376. On Wednesday last week, it held 1,547.
Sheriff Chris Nocco is asking for almost $2 million from the county commission to hire additional deputies and civilians to staff the third floor at the jail and relieve crowding, at least temporarily.
Hoolan likens the situation to angry cats.
"You got one angry cat and stick him in a box,'' she said. "Now you add four more angry cats in that same box. That's what we're dealing with.''
What keeps those angry cats from brutality?
"We're very good at identifying our aggressive children who don't play well with others,'' she said, "and we keep them separated.''
Hoolan said the never-ending surge in inmate population vs. detention officers has forced the sheriff to pay up to 1,900 hours in overtime every two weeks.
She's encouraged about recent conversations among political leaders, including President Barack Obama, to redefine some punishments. "We're overrunning the system with petty drug users,'' she said. "We should take that money and spend it educating children about what drugs do to your body and mind.''
In 30 years, Hoolan has witnessed entire families come through the jail — "grandparents to grandchildren,'' she said. "You go, 'wow,' and you realize there's nothing you can do to fix this mess. You can only do your best and hope like hell you walk out at the end of the day safe as when you came in.''
Hoolan bemoans a steady decline in personal responsibility. "So many of these inmates think they're entitled to everything, including your stuff. Some are so grossly unhealthy and demand medical services because they think we owe it to them.''
That said, she has also helped some inmates she realized were wrongly arrested. And she's had light moments with some of the guests. One filled out a special request and sent it to her: "I would like an air compressor, air hammer, cutting torch and hacksaw. I have some remodeling to do to my room.''
Hoolan responded, "We have to decline your generous offer as we prefer our housing units as they are currently arranged.''
In 2001, Hoolan was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out, so she tried wearing a wig at work. "I couldn't stand the itch,'' she said, "so I just ripped it off one day and my major about fell out of his chair.''
The staff rallied around her. Some of the male officers shaved their heads in solidarity. .
Hoolan is enjoying the pace of retirement. She lives with her 85-year-old mother, Lee, and enjoys playing piano for the band at Sonrise Community Church in New Port Richey. She once taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray studios, "but I think those days are over,'' she said with a smile.
She is a registered auditor for the American Correctional Association and intends to consult for law enforcement departments, including Pasco. But for now, she's decompressing.
"Right now,'' she said, "I'm enjoying not being in a jail.''