BROOKSVILLE — The county jail's medical unit has nine cells. On Friday afternoon, they held 10 inmates.
That's typical for the Hernando County Detention Center, said Maj. Mike Page, judicial services bureau commander for the Sheriff's Office. Sometimes, Page said, the number of inmates in the medical unit can climb to 14 or more.
"I don't know that we've been below nine since I got here," said Page.
He arrived two years ago when the Sheriff's Office took over jail operations from private contractor Corrections Corporation of America.
The days of cramming two or more inmates into the jail's medical cells are numbered.
Construction started this week on a $1.5 million freestanding infirmary adjacent to the existing jail. At roughly 4,500 square feet, the one-story structure will add sorely needed beds and bring the jail's medical care into the modern era, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said.
"It's exciting because it's going to give us a minimum of 25 beds to house inmates with medical issues, and it looks like we can go up to 36 beds if we need to," Nienhuis said.
Some of the existing cells are large enough to accommodate two or more bunks, but putting multiple inmates in a medical cell can be tricky. Prisoners do not share cells if they are contagious or violent, Page said.
And the unit is on the second floor of the detention center, making access problematic. Gurneys won't fit in the jail's elevator. Though it has only happened once since Page arrived, inmates on gurneys must be hoisted up and down the staircase.
"That's just unacceptable," Page said.
The 22-year-old jail meets the state's minimum standards, Page said, but more than two decades of neglect have taken a toll on the building, which presents a particular challenge for a medical unit.
"It's hard to keep a building that's been leaking for 22 years in the best sanitary condition," he said.
Kristine DeKany, the jail's medical director, worked closely with Clemons Rutherford & Associates, the Tallahassee firm that drew up the plans for the new building, Page said. The contractor is Allstate Construction Inc. of Tampa. The cost for the infirmary will be paid out of the $3 million the County Commission set aside for repairs when the sheriff took over operation of the jail.
The infirmary will feature wide doorways for gurneys and include two isolation cells with ventilation systems designed to help minimize the spread of contamination to other areas. Another seclusion cell designed for inmates on suicide watch or at risk of hurting themselves features padded walls and flooring. The existing unit does not have either of those kinds of cells.
Beyond its operational advantages, county officials are hoping the new unit pays dividends by helping to lure federal agencies that pay to house detainees.
New unit may bring back federal contracts
Hernando County used to have contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which paid a per-diem rate to house people picked up on warrants or detained while their citizen status was checked. The rate, agreed upon by both sides, covered the cost to house those people, and also included a built-in profit margin that went into the county's general fund.
The federal detainees were moved in November 2009 to a new facility built for them in Baker County near Jacksonville to be closer to immigration offices and federal courts.
But the agencies still contract with local jails throughout the state, and Hernando is close to the federal courthouse in Tampa, Page said. The demand is there, but so is a hurdle.
"My understanding is (the agencies) were not pleased at all with the medical unit," Page said.
Asked about that, a spokesman for ICE would only say that the agency "is continually re-evaluating the need for detention capacities and where those should be located against our current operations."
The Sheriff's Office also is seeking accreditation from the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission and hopes to earn the same kind of stamp of approval from the American Correctional Association. The latter would be unlikely without a modern medical unit, Page said.
The new building will not require additional staffers. The project is expected to be completed in seven to 12 months, depending on the weather.
Once inmates are moved into the new facility, the existing unit will be refurbished to house juvenile inmates who are being adjudicated as adults. The jail doesn't house many of those juveniles, Page said, but they must be kept separate from the adult population.
"Essentially it means we have to shut down one of our pods and dedicate 24 bunks to one person," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]