BROOKSVILLE — Taking over a jail in 120 days is not a task for the faint of heart.
Just ask Sheriff Richard Nugent, who will begin operating the Hernando County Jail on Aug. 27, after Corrections Corporation of America notified the county in April that it was pulling out after 22 years.
The transition has been all the more difficult because Nugent's command staff has had to weed through hundreds of applications to fill 100 sworn and more than 30 nonsworn positions.
A third of the initial 60 applicants from CCA were rejected for lack of qualifications, or bigger problems.
One current CCA employee admitted being an intermediary in drug deals. Another said he had used a variety of substances in the past, ranging from marijuana and cocaine to mushrooms and a veterinary anesthetic.
The issues with some of the current staff mirror problems with the state of the facility that Nugent is inheriting, he noted. And while the county is still negotiating to bring in an engineer to examine maintenance problems at the jail, Nugent wants to see the obvious issues — such as rusting doors and a leaking roof — simply get fixed.
The county doesn't need to pay an engineer to say that those repairs are needed. That just runs up the cost, he said.
Nugent and his command staff also have expressed frustration over ongoing questions about who owns what equipment. Trying to order equipment and supplies when the landlord, Hernando County, and the tenant, CCA, are each claiming ownership of the same inventory — including a $30,000 dishwasher — is frustrating, officials said.
Nugent plans to write to County Commission Chairman John Druzbick soon to make it clear that inventory disputes need to be settled.
"We've got to know where we are and soon,'' Nugent said.
After all, he said on Friday, just 41 days remain.
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Nugent's human resources staff, a team of sworn officers doing background checks, the jail command staff and his bureau chiefs have been conducting the search for the staff that will run the jail. They are still about 12 shy in sworn positions and have about 20 more nonsworn jobs to fill.
The process includes an extensive application, a detailed background check, an interview, truth verification testing, psychological screening and drug testing. Anywhere along the way, the applicant can be red flagged for a problem, according to Maj. Michael Page, the new jail administrator.
Nugent has the final say on all of the choices.
The sheriff's yardstick includes consideration of an applicant's drug use, criminal history, financial situation and the number of jobs an individual has held.
Drug use early in life doesn't necessarily mean that an applicant is out. Drug use after the age of 25 does because Nugent says those 25 and older should be making more responsible choices.
Other applicants have been rejected for a variety of errors that Nugent simply couldn't live with. One current CCA corrections officer, for example, had glowing evaluations but had, on one occasion, accidentally let the wrong inmate go.
"You just have to look at it all,'' Nugent said.
By a week from Wednesday, the sheriff said, he must notify those selected so they can give notice at their current jobs and get training.
While CCA ran the jail with 170 employees, Nugent plans to have fewer than 135, with 100 of those sworn officers with a starting salary of $39,401 — thousands more than beginning salary for CCA employees. His workers will be certified corrections deputies with a higher professional standard, for which Nugent does not apologize.
"If they're going to wear my badge and work for me,'' he said, the corrections staff will handle inmates and the public professionally.
While the jail appeared to run smoothly for two decades under CCA's oversight, Nugent said it is unknown just how smooth that operation was under the private company. Problems including escapes and suicides occurred under the CCA watch. And several years ago, the sheriff voiced concerns with the jail failing to catalog hundreds of inmates' fingerprints in a timely manner.
"A lot of these problems would get me un-elected,'' Nugent said.
The jail's condition alone showed that CCA's stewardship was not up to a high standard, and no one was ever held accountable for maintenance and repairs. Professionals wouldn't have let that happen, he said.
"If you expect more out of people," Nugent said, "you have to have a higher quality of people to start with."
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Since Nugent was given the job of chief jailer for the county, his staff has been slowly moving in and shadowing the CCA corrections staff, and what they have learned is that they can do more with less.
For example, Page noted that CCA has lots of supervisors and they rose to their positions simply by outlasting their co-workers, even if they were fairly new to the job.
That might mean a corrections officer with just a few years of experience could be in charge of the hundreds of inmates and staffers at any given time, a huge responsibility, Page noted.
"You need time to season, and you need time to experience the things you're going to experience'' before a promotion, Nugent said. Promoting too quickly, "it's bad for the organization and it's bad for the employee.''
Shadowing CCA also has allowed the sheriff's leadership team to see where more employees are needed and where fewer are needed.
"The number of people watching inmates is going to be essentially the same,'' Page said. "By no means is anybody going to be at risk'' because of staffing changes.
Nugent noted that CCA didn't keep up with technology and said many of their operations are labor intensive.
For example, the sheriff will switch from a paper to a computerized system for medical record keeping. The process of checking in inmates, collecting their valuables and belongings, and returning them will be among other tasks to be automated.
While Nugent's staff members are confident with the technology changes and personnel screening process, they are more frustrated with the parts of the transition that are out of their control.
The tug-of-war over the dishwasher is one obvious example of the inventory problems. As CCA prepares to depart and take whatever its officials believe they own, Nugent must replace equipment, furnishings and technology that will be gone.
"Nothing happens overnight,'' Page said, noting that the county can't just walk into Sears and buy a new industrial dishwasher. It might have to be custom built.
Since it is county government's fight with CCA, "we're kind of caught in the middle,'' said Bureau Chief Bill Kicklighter.
There is a back-up plan, pointed out Bureau Chief Royce Decker.
"Styrofoam,'' he said.
The sheriff's team already has a contingency in place for disposable plates, cups and utensils.
Lisa Hammond, the county's purchasing consultant, acknowledged ongoing inventory issues between the county and CCA.
"We're going strictly with what is a fixed asset according to accounting practices, but CCA doesn't necessarily agree,'' Hammond said. "We're hoping to have some resolution late (this) week.''
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Nugent pulls no punches when it comes to his assessment of the jail facility. In his opinion, it's "a piece of junk.''
And while Page assures that the jail will be operated efficiently under the sheriff's leadership, he also thinks the county could be making repairs that are necessary before the transition takes place.
"We could be further along,'' he said.
The sheriff and county workers were busy in their joint meeting Friday working through such issues. County Administrator David Hamilton said that written protocols will be established for who is responsible for which maintenance tasks.
Rusting doors, deteriorating windows and leaks in the ceiling are all well documented problems at the facility. Nugent's team wants some issues addressed immediately, such as the doors in the holding cell area of booking that can be popped open with a shove.
"We have communicated our concerns to the county,'' Page said.
While there is still plenty to get done over the next six weeks, Nugent, Page and their team all say there are no worries. The sheriff will be running the jail in late August.
"We're getting real close on all of it,'' Page said. "We'll be ready on the drop-dead date.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.