BROOKSVILLE — With Hernando County taxpayers apparently on the hook for possibly millions of dollars in repairs to the county jail, officials on Wednesday were asking how things could have gotten so bad.
Where were the red flags? And why had no one noticed the deteriorating conditions?
The most recent inspection and accreditation reports, which were touted in recent weeks by jail operator Corrections Corporation of America as evidence of its superior administration, show no signs of trouble.
County jails used to be inspected by the state's Department of Corrections but the law changed in the mid 1990s, county purchasing director Jim Gantt said Wednesday. Now, jails are inspected annually by officials certified to inspect based on the Florida Model Jail Standards.
The jail met those requirements during an inspection in January.
"I found no serious violations while inspecting and I recognize your continuing effort to make improvements to maintain a clean and safe facility,'' inspector Michelle Isaacson wrote to jail warden Russell Washburn on Jan. 12. "This shows your strong commitment and ownership in your facility.''
Isaacson could not be reached Wednesday to comment on her findings.
In recent weeks, CCA has been countering assertions from Sheriff Richard Nugent that he could operate the jail better and cheaper than CCA, which has run the facility for 22 years.
On Tuesday, Nugent told the County Commission that after a tour last week of the jail he has changed his mind about wanting to take over the jail.
He showed commissioners photographs of cracks in walls and floors, water lines on equipment where water flows into the buildings, rusty doors and hinges and electrical outlets out of which rainwater sometimes flows.
The facility, he concluded, has deteriorated to the point that "significant repairs and improvements must occur very soon.''
County Administrator David Hamilton called conditions at the jail "unacceptable'' and "appalling'' based on what he saw at the facility.
Gantt said provisions in the jail contract clearly state CCA is responsible for maintenance, including routine maintenance.
The county is on the hook for "major repairs or replacements of major components at the detention facility,'' the contract states. Those include air conditioning, roof systems, elevators, fire detection and suppression systems'' as well as plumbing systems.
County Commission Chairman John Druzbick toured the facility last week. Commenting on the Florida Model Jail Standards review, he noted on Wednesday, "If they passed this one, I'd hate to see the ones they didn't pass.''
A medical inspection required by the standards dated Oct. 1, 2009 stated "no serious or notable violations were found.''
Last September, the U.S. Department of Justice, which at the time was still housing federal immigration prisoners at the jail, conducted its regular monitoring and found the facility "satisfactory,'' which is its highest rating.
Also late last year, three correctional officials from out-of-state facilities representing the American Correctional Association, toured the jail and concluded that it met 100 percent of the mandatory standards to become accredited and 97.4 percent of the nonmandatory standards.
Those officials toured the jail for six hours observing "quality of life,'' "conditions of confinement'' and "environmental'' issues, among others.
"The overall living conditions throughout the facility were very good,'' the report states, even noting that since tap water in Florida is warm and the jail provides coolers throughout the facility, that "speaks well of the facility.''
The only deficiencies noted were in the amount of space in cells and the failure of showers, toilets and sinks from meeting standards but "the team received no complaints about these conditions or access to the hygiene areas.''
In the area of sanitation, the report notes that the jail "is exceptionally clean and it is apparent this is the norm'' and touts the kitchen as "very clean and orderly.''
No issues related to the condition of the jail were noted in the report from interviews with 35 inmates and 60 staff members.
"Virtually all staff had good attitudes about their work and the administration of the facility,'' according to the report. "All state that they felt safe in their work environment and that they had input into policies and procedures covering facility operations. There was a truly family-like feeling among staff.''
Druzbick said that, despite the positive comments from the outside entities, the county and CCA are the ones who must make amends for allowing the jail to deteriorate.
He said the county must now begin inspecting the jail annually, if not more often. And he said the county should consider taking CCA up on an offer to provide an office at the facility for county staff to monitor maintenance.
"The oversight on this building has not been followed through with,'' he said. "We are to blame for a part of it and so are they.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.