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County jails lose longtime leader

TAMPA — He spent 27 years building a national reputation for his jails. When they came under fire in recent months, he opened his doors and invited scrutiny.

Col. David Parrish, Hillsborough County's top jail official, quietly announced his retirement Friday, about five months earlier than expected.

Parrish was known as a reformer. He was unafraid to take the phone call from an angry inmate's relative, never shied from a media interview.

He often spoke at length about "direct supervision," a philosophy of replacing traditional jail cells with dormitory style inmate housing employing expanded common areas making it easier for corrections officer to interact with inmates.

He spent the last several months weathering the most intense criticism of his career but says his decision to retire brought a mixture of sadness and excitement.

"It's the best job I ever had in my life," Parrish, 61, said in a phone call from Aurora, Colo., where he was attending a meeting of the Large Jail Network, which gathers administrators of the nation's 50 largest jails.

He'll miss the people and the job. But he won't miss worrying about the early-morning phone calls, the inmates who make headlines, the possibility that somewhere, something might go wrong.

A job offer came across his desk last week that he couldn't turn down, he said. As jails chief, he makes $135,892. He declined to give many details about the new position, except that he will be consulted in the planning and design of medical detention facilities in California. He called it "the opportunity of a lifetime," a chance to replicate some of his input into the Falkenburg Road Jail.

His home will remain in Hillsborough County.

A Pennsylvania native, Parrish joined the Sheriff's Office in 1974 at age 27 with a master's degree in corrections. Though he wanted to be in patrol, Sheriff Walter Heinrich tapped him in 1981 to oversee detention.

On Parrish's watch, the jail staff has grown from 500 to 1,500. The inmates booked per day has soared from 1,200 to 4,000.

He spearheaded the expansion of jail facilities by 5,000 beds, turning what was a hodgepodge of city- and county-run facilities dating from 1926 into a national standard-bearer. His oldest facility is just 18.

"This guy is one of the best jail administrators living in America," said Jim Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association. "It's Hillsborough County's loss."

But the past several months brought headlines Parrish wishes he never had to comment on, let alone read.

In January, jailhouse video captured an inmate being dumped out of his wheelchair by a deputy. The pictures circulated on national networks and, through the Internet, caught the attention of people on the other side of the world.

Three people were dismissed or resigned following an internal investigation. And though the wheelchair complaint knocked loose other inmate abuse claims, an independent panel ordered by Sheriff David Gee to look into jail operations called the incident an anomaly.

In its final report issued Wednesday, the Independent Review Commission on Hillsborough County Jails lauded Parrish for his work cultivating a stellar reputation for the county.

"Bad incidents occur in even the best-run institutions," the commission wrote. "The key is how an institution responds to such events."

Sheriff David Gee said the words confirmed what he already knew: that the jails are good.

And Parrish said the experience highlights a reality for anyone working in jails.

"No one cares that we process 70,000 people perfectly," he said. "It's that seventy-thousand and first that isn't perfect that is newsworthy."

Parrish lasted through the administrations of three sheriffs. He served as president of the American Jail Association and was regularly called upon to consult with other agencies. Hillsborough jails have met the accreditation standards of three professional bodies since 1999.

He often reminded reporters that the jails are open to anyone who wants to see them. He did so this year in the heat of the wheelchair controversy, noting "if I could take 1.2-million people through the jail" — roughly Hills­borough's population — "all my problems would be solved."

Al McCray, a former inmate and community activist who attended many of the jail commission hearings, said Parrish put a human face on corrections.

Though McCray has sometimes been critical of the jail, Parrish returns his calls — even on a recent Sunday. "His job and his title did not get between him and the people," McCray said.

Even potential foes like Hills­borough Public Defender Julianne Holt call Parrish a friend. "He has always addressed all of our concerns," she said.

Parrish said he got the job offer on Wednesday night, after the commission made its mostly flattering jail findings public.

On Thursday, news broke that a Hillsborough County Circuit judge was unhappy seeing inmates come to court wearing loose jail-issued pants.

Parrish apologized and said it should have been caught.

By Friday, Parrish said, he'd decided to accept the job offer.

Gondles, who said he spoke with Parrish as he was making his decision, said he thinks the pants story affected his mind-set. "He just decided that he wanted to go out on a high note," Gondles said.

Parrish was already enrolled in the state's enhanced retirement program, which dictated he had to leave by February. His official end date is Sept. 27, though he will take leave until then.

Sheriff Gee, who called Parrish "a colleague, fellow deputy and friend," will appoint a successor.

Jails veteran Maj. Robert Lucas is considered a strong contender.

Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

County jails lose longtime leader 09/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 11:49pm]
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