LARGO — A dozen inmates living at a Goodwill-run work release center were sent back to prison this week after state authorities conducted a surprise security audit.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said 12 men, whose names were not released, are suspected of violating rules at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center. She could not, however, describe the violations, saying, "We are still preparing the report and do not have a list as to what was found."
State Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper, who visited with concerned citizens and toured the center Tuesday, told the Tampa Bay Times several violations were discovered, but most were not major.
"They found some minor contraband and indications of contraband and that's why these people were violated," Latvala said.
No cellphones were found, he said.
The Clearwater lawmakers said the team from the Department of Corrections that conducted Monday's sweep included 40 officers, seven drug-sniffing dogs and one cellphone-sniffing dog.
The inmates were sent to Polk Correctional Institution, Howard said, which essentially is a parent institution of the work release center.
Latvala called for a DOC review last week after Tampa Bay Times stories raised questions about security and oversight at the 280-resident facility.
The Times investigation revealed that the Largo work release center, the largest of its kind in the state, has had more escapes than any other similar facility in the past three years. Twice in the past four months, inmates there have been accused of violent crimes: a double homicide and a rape.
Latvala said he thinks changes already are in the works at the center, such as adding additional lights in the back of the facility, modifying the fencing, adjusting surveillance cameras and trimming back bushes in the rear of the building — designed to make sure no one can escape through the back.
"This place is either going to get their act together, or it's going to be a very small work release center or it's going to be a DOC-run work center," Hooper said. "Or, it's going to be gone."
The lawmakers met with Randy Tifft, a regional director of institutions for the corrections department, who also was present during Monday's sweep of the facility at 16432 U.S. 19 N.
Howard said similar surprise inspections have been conducted in the past, but that this week's was the largest.
Hooper said the center looked better than he envisioned. It was fairly clean, he said, but the number of inmates bunking in rooms — as many as eight to 10 in some cases — concerned him.
Latvala and Hooper said other issues also were discussed, such as whether the center should have more people on staff with a background in corrections. Other centers employ retired correctional officers, they said.
"It's important to have people in these facilities that know how inmates' minds work," Latvala said.
Before visiting the center, Latvala and Hooper met with about 150 residents of the nearby Embassy Mobile Home Park to address their concerns.
Residents have never been completely happy with having the center in the neighborhood. They protested even before it was put there and have raised objections since the recent crimes.
Though he shares residents' concerns, Latvala said he thinks the corrections department is working hard on the issue. He said the department's decision to send in 40 officers on Monday was a good example.
"The department is definitely taking it seriously," he said.
Hooper said DOC has more work to do. He said he and Lat- vala plan to have another meeting, "probably sometime in the next 30 days."
"We made it clear to the Goodwill folks at the center … we're not going to let this drop, we're not going to forget about this," Hooper said. "We have constituents that are concerned, that are scared."
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