BROOKSVILLE — Tuesday was field trip day for Sheriff Richard Nugent.
But instead of a fun day at an Orlando theme park, Nugent ventured north to the Panhandle, where he spent the day talking to officials from the Bay County Sheriff's Office about operating a county jail.
Specifically, how the sheriff could run the jail more efficiently, and more cheaply, than a private company.
Nugent came home more convinced than ever that Hernando County taxpayers will benefit if he takes over the local jail's operation.
"I was really impressed with the operation up there in Bay County,'' he said. "It was extremely, extremely efficient, clean and there is a structure they have in place as far as treatment of inmates there that is really well run.''
A year and a half ago, the Bay County sheriff took over his county jail, which had been run for more than two decades by Corrections Corporation of America. Nugent is working on accomplishing the same takeover in Hernando County.
The question of who will operate the Hernando jail is in the hands of county commissioners, who will discuss all the research that has been done and all the costs involved at their April 13 meeting.
Nugent has been busy talking to sheriff's officials in Hillsborough, Pasco and Sumter counties to learn what he can about their jail operations. But the Bay County trip was critical because that jail had just gone through the transition.
"It was obviously a real eye-opener,'' Nugent said, noting that he spent the morning of his visit touring all parts of the 900-plus inmate jail from the commissary to the medical facilities and back through the inmate housing.
"It was an excellent tour and fact-finding mission,'' he said.
The rest of the day was spent with Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen and his staff looking at schematics of the Hernando jail, talking about details of the transition, examining staffing plans and reviewing operating costs.
"That just really gives you a feeling for their operation and what things they found when they took over,'' Nugent said.
More than ever, he said, he didn't understand why CCA officials told the County Commission earlier this month that Bay County is paying more to run the jail than they would have under their old CCA contract. That was not the picture that Bay County officials painted.
Not only did the sheriff turn money back in to the county's general fund, that was after he spent more than $100,000 to upgrade security systems in the jail.
Nugent said he was especially impressed with the many programs offered through the Bay County facilities such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, suicide prevention and re-entry programs designed to keep inmates from coming back again.
"That's the difference (from CCA),'' Nugent said. "The sheriff doesn't want them to come back again.''
McKeithen also impressed Nugent with his program of discipline, structure and rewards for inmates who did work inside and outside the jail and his attitude toward good treatment of inmates and their families.
"I'm not a bleeding-heart liberal. I'm just the opposite,'' he said, but Nugent was surprised at how important treatment of those at the jail was for the Bay County staff.
That struck a chord with him because so many of the complaints he has heard about CCA in Hernando County have been about the way people have been treated at the lockup.
Nugent also spoke to Bay County officials about a suicide that happened at their jail after the sheriff took over. Acknowledging that suicides and other problems can happen at any jail, Nugent said Bay County officials used what they learned about a design flaw in their facility to make it safer.
Bay County officials also shared that as the transition began, CCA scooped up employees' supplies as they left their jobs and threw them in the garbage, and that the facility needed a good cleaning when they took over.
"They didn't get a lot of cooperation with the transition,'' Nugent said.
The other lesson learned is that, once CCA leaves, "we have to be ready to flip on the switch'' and take over everything immediately, Nugent said.
"It's a huge responsibility to take on, but the more I see and hear, the difference between a CCA-run jail and a county sheriff-run jail, it's just totally opposite.''
The visit to Bay County also gave Nugent other things to think about. At the jail there, the sheriff contracts out the food service and the commissary to different companies, saving the cost of benefits to employees.
Work squads are also used for a variety of out-of-facility jobs, and inmates with skills do appropriate tasks around the jail.
One did such good work that, when he was released, the sheriff wrote him a letter of reference that helped him get a job, Nugent said.
Nugent, county and CCA officials are slated to meet on April 1 to allow the CCA to open its financial records and for all parties to discuss the various issues related to a possible transition.
Hernando County has issued CCA a formal public records request in hopes that financial and inventory information can be in the county's hands soon to prepare for that meeting. CCA has not yet responded to that request.
"We're ready to at least get into the nuts and bolts of getting this done,'' Nugent said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.