BROOKSVILLE — As the sun rises over the Hernando County Jail this morning, newly sworn sheriff's correctional deputies will stand side by side with the private jailers whose company has run the facility for 22 years.
While Sheriff Richard Nugent doesn't officially take over the jail from Corrections Corporation of America until 12:01 a.m. Friday, inmates today will begin to see what the future will look like under the sheriff's watch.
The captive audience is in for a few changes.
Gone will be the regular pizza nights. No more movie or popcorn nights either. And no more sleeping in. Inmates will be expected to work at the facility or, when a program is crafted, out in the community, where sheriff's officials say there are plenty of public lands to be cleaned up and grass to be mowed.
Hot breakfasts will be a thing of the past. Inmates will be expected to be presentable at broadcast court hearings, and their movements through the facility will be regimented, militarylike and orderly.
That's a far cry from the conditions there now, said Maj. Michael Page, the jail's new administrator. "They're pretty much doing what they want there while they stay within the walls," he said.
Suffice it to say, the next time Playboy magazine publishes "An Insider's Guide to America's Top Ten Jails," as it did in 1992, the Hernando jail probably won't make the list.
Nugent promised that the punishment aspect of incarceration will return under his leadership.
"There's a new sheriff in town," Nugent said. "It's not going to be a relaxed Club Med atmosphere."
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When former Sheriff Tom Mylander passed the county's law enforcement responsibility torch to Nugent in 2001, he also passed along some sage advice, evidenced by a key left behind in the sheriff's desk.
"It was a key to the jail," Nugent said. "He said, 'Never have one of those.'
"But times have changed."
During Mylander's tenure, the jail passed into the hands of CCA, with county officials at the time supportive of a private operation and Mylander talking about his need to focus on law enforcement. Ever since, Nugent steadfastly voiced his disinterest in running the jail.
Then, this year, with county officials looking for ways to save money in the 2010-11 budget, Nugent told county commissioners that he thought he could run the jail cheaper and more efficiently. After taking a look inside, however, seeing the state of disrepair, he withdrew his offer. But CCA forced his hand, announcing plans to pull out and giving the county until Aug. 26 to prepare to take over the operation.
The County Commission named Nugent as the jail operator, and Nugent stepped up.
"It's a challenge. I've always liked a challenge. It's my Type A personality," he said. "But I was never expecting this many challenges at one time."
Over the last several months, as Nugent and his team have been preparing for the transition, there have been battles over the budget, skirmishes related to divvying up the equipment and furnishings inside the jail, and debate over the condition of the facility itself.
At the same time, Nugent's transition team, led by Page, had to sift through 400 applicants, doing extensive background searches and truth verification testing, in order the prepare 130 officers to staff the facility starting Friday.
Those detention deputies and the support staff were recognized and sworn in Monday, and training has been ongoing to prepare them for today's soft launch at running the facility.
Many other details have also needed attention, from selecting, installing and switching over to a new jail management computer system to loading up on everything from toilet paper to copy paper.
Now, as the countdown on sheriff's computers has reached the single digits, Page said he believes they are on schedule, but that "every minute we get closer, everything seems to be speeding up."
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The job shadowing that begins today will allow the new correctional deputies to watch CCA staffers go through their regular operational and security procedures and see how day-to-day life flows in the jail.
They will also test the new computerized jail management system the sheriff has installed. Technology staffers will be on hand to make sure there are no bugs, and if user error is the problem, immediate help will be available to help employees brush up on their new skills.
In the coming days, the sheriff's staff will also have to rebook all of the approximately 630 inmates into the jail through the new computer system, a system that will link all information related to an inmate.
That system and the other new technology built into Nugent's jail plan are designed to increase efficiency and decrease the need for so many staffers. The sheriff has 130 workers, compared to the 170 employed by CCA.
Keeping track of an inmate's money will be completely automated, from the minute they're booked into jail until the time they are released, when they will receive a debit card closing out their account. That cuts down on clerical workers who keep track of accounts, officials said.
While CCA had no way to track fees owed to the county by inmates and couldn't tap into their accounts to pay those fees, Nugent said his system will allow for tracking and payments.
Medical records will also be automated, and co-payments and the costs of medicines will be chargeable against inmates' accounts.
Inmates who buy items from the commissary will "still be able to get their potato chips and Honey Buns," according to Page. But a new system will bring in prepackaged items rather than having the jail maintain an inventory, which took up a lot of staff time.
The handling of inmates' mail will also change. Postcards will be the only mail allowed in and out, reducing staff time opening and examining every item in an envelope to keep contraband out of the jail.
Another savings will come as people turn themselves in on warrants. Now, the jail staff will be able to handle the entire process, and road patrol deputies who used to have to officially serve the warrants can stay on the road instead.
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Page would have liked to have been surprised when he saw the huge stack of pizzas delivered to the jail entrance one recent day, but it's something he had seen at other privately run jails.
He said that won't be the case at the Hernando County Jail anymore. Hot breakfasts are also a thing of the past. Inmates will get three nutritional meals a day, but in a more efficient manner.
While CCA used a private company to run its food service operation, the sheriff will do the job in-house with four deputies supervising inmate labor.
By serving a cold breakfast, food service staffers can prepare the morning meal at the end of their workday, allowing their day to start later and saving work hours, Page said.
"It's a better use of staff, and the inmates still get a nutritional meal," he said.
The other plus is saving wear and tear on expensive industrial kitchen equipment, giving it a longer lifespan.
Sgt. James Johnston, who will be directing food service, has already begun to build a relationship with local farmers markets and grocery stores to secure leftover produce and products nearing their expiration date for use in the kitchen.
Drug forfeiture money was used to buy a refrigerated truck to transport whatever is collected.
"It saves us more tax dollars," Page said. "There are all kinds of ways to do that. We knew we were going to show people how we could do it for a lot less and still keep people healthy."
There will also be changes in the jail's visitation rules. CCA's rules and an inconsistent adherence to them have brought unnecessary frustration to inmates and families, officials said. Under the new policy, family members named by the inmate will be able to visit two times per week for an hour. Officials are working to trade out some of the broken video visitation screens to increase access.
Nugent said that inmates, who are used to pulling their blankets over their heads and staying in bed all day, are in for a rude awakening. Sleeping in is no longer going to be allowed.
While Page noted that there may not be enough jobs to keep every inmate busy, everyone should be awake, working or in educational programs or just writing letters to their family members.
Not only does it cut down on nightly disturbances by inmates, but getting up in the morning is a good habit to get into, Nugent said.
"We're getting them ready for the real world," he said.
Work crews will be another part of that. Nugent said he would like to partner with Pasco-Hernando Community College to offer certificates to inmates who learn culinary skills working in the jail kitchen. That might give them a leg up when they seek a job.
"We don't want them to come back," he said.
Other work will be planned for crews outside the jail, but Nugent and Page stressed that they wanted to be absolutely sure the right inmates are out in the community to keep the public safe. One of their first tasks will be working at the county's waste transfer stations, said sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black.
And unlike the CCA system, which made the inmates conspicuous in orange jumpsuits, the sheriff's work crews will wear old-school black and white stripes. Inmates will soon be stenciling information on the uniforms, identifying themselves as being from the Hernando County Jail.
Nugent also plans to ask the County Commission to reduce the amount of gain time earned by inmates by 25 percent, and an alternative to weekend jail time for some inmates is also in the works.
Instead of having those inmates check in at the jail for the weekend — an action that requires booking the inmates in and out, a bed and meals — they would report to a work crew location. After putting in a full day's work, they'd go home and report to another location the next day.
"Things are going to be more military-regimented," Nugent said, describing how inmates will be moved in lines from one area to another. For court arraignments, inmates will be expected to be presentable since there is a standard for court demeanor, Page added.
Most importantly, the inmates and the staff will know the rules and follow them consistently, both Nugent and Page stressed.
"They will learn the rules," Nugent said.
"To me, once you have respect for the rules, then everything else will follow," Page said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.