BROOKSVILLE — As operators of the Hernando County Jail talked on Wednesday to visitors about how sincerely they work to help those behind bars, the proof sat just one room over.
There, a handful of male inmates took part in a discussion with their Alcoholics Anonymous group, one of dozens of programs from anger management to GED preparation to faith-based programs offered at the jail.
Officials from jail operator Corrections Corporation of America who were leading the tour, and the public relations push for the visiting media and county officials, accentuated the positives.
Facing the possible end to its 22-year contract to run the jail, CCA pulled out all the stops on Wednesday to make sure county leaders had their side of the story before deciding the jail's future.
Ever since Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent announced weeks ago that he was interested in taking over the jail, saying he could run it cheaper and better, jail Warden Russell Washburn has gotten plenty of questions about the operation.
For example, some have questioned the jail's "pizza program'' in which inmates can have pizzas delivered to the jail. Washburn explained the inmates pay extra for the pizza, with a portion of the money helping local charities.
Addressing other so-called "myths'' about his company's operation, Washburn said he and others at CCA were "a little shocked'' when they heard of Nugent's interest in the jail, since he has always been adamantly opposed to taking on the responsibility.
"I absolutely believe today that CCA continues to be the best option for Hernando County and Hernando County taxpayers,'' Washburn said. Pointing to the company's 25-plus years of running prisons and jails, he said, "Experience is worth its weight in gold.''
County, CCA and sheriff's officials are expected to meet today to talk about jail operations. The commission is set to take up the issue again on April 13.
Washburn acknowledged that there have been high and low points along the way but that this would be true of any jail or prison. "At the end of the day, it's about how we make things better,'' he said.
The warden touted the hard work of the facility's staff but also the 154 volunteers at the jail. He spoke about 72 programs offered to inmates and the 2,000 hours volunteers have given.
Nugent has repeatedly said that he would not keep inmates longer than they needed to be in jail, unlike CCA which he said may delay releases until after they have been behind bars at least six hours. That means the company collects a full day's compensation.
Washburn said last year, CCA processed 1,390 inmates in less than six hours and 667 juveniles who cannot be kept for more than six hours, saving Hernando County $73,670.
Sometimes, he said, there might be a delay because jail personnel must be sure that the person they are about to release can be released. By contract with the county, if the jail improperly releases inmates, they can be assessed tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
"We have to make sure that all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed,'' he said.
Washburn also emphasized that, despite community sentiment that the facility has incarcerated more people to make more money, "we have absolutely no arrest authority'' and "no control'' of how many inmates are arrested and sentenced to the facility.
He also stressed to the group that the facility is staffed largely with 116 sworn officers, those who must complete rigorous training in order to be a correctional officer.
Washburn, others on his staff and from CCA's corporate office in Nashville, detailed the jail's suicide prevention program, the accreditation process for a proficient jail operation and its use of a data system collecting and analyzing incident reports to reduce jail incidents ranging from bringing in contraband to assaults.
In a packet of information given to visitors, Washburn also detailed the many community organizations his company contributes to, the volume purchasing CCA uses to save money as it operates more than 600 correctional facilities, and how it absorbs capital equipment purchases, building maintenance and utility costs.
"I'm convinced that CCA remains the best choice as manager of the Hernando County Jail, operating safely for the community, inmates and saving hardworking taxpayers' dollars,'' he said.
Visitors on the tour learned about booking procedures and fingerprinting, visited the pods where inmates are housed, and toured laundry, food preparation and the medical area of the facility where two special cells are designed for inmates who may be suicidal.
On Wednesday, there were 529 inmates in the facility, well below the capacity of 876. Some were working mopping in the hallways. Others were helping with the laundry. In the kitchen, a company that provides food services for all CCA facilities was washing up after lunch.
In the dry storage were huge bags of sugar cookie mix and rice, parsley flakes by the box and stacks of all kinds of spices. The food, officials said, is largely made by scratch and sent to the inmates' pods to eat, since the facility has no cafeteria.
Assistant Warden Orlando Rodriguez told visitors about how he frequently drops by the pods because it is impossible to know what was going on in the jail without doing that.
Meanwhile, inmates milled around, some watching the visitors. Two inmates at the picnic-style tables focused on the chess game in front of them.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.