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Accountability would have prevented decay at Hernando County Jail

The Hernando County Jail has become a bit of a dump, and maybe you don't care.

Maybe it doesn't bother you that someone charged with beating his wife, for example, is locked up in a place with rusty doors. Maybe you don't buy the old idea (which I kind of do) that a society can be judged by the way it treats its least powerful members.

Okay, then consider this: Corrections officers, whom we entrust to watch these accused or convicted criminals, have to spend their days there, too. And structural flaws can easily lead to security breaches, which is what happened way back in 1990 when four inmates at the then-new jail escaped through cell doors that couldn't be locked and a wall made of plastic foam. Yes, really.

Sheriff Richard Nugent summed up the situation this way: "The county just shouldn't have buildings like this."

At Tuesday's County Commission meeting, Nugent reported on problems at the jail — leaks, cracked walls, rusty doors and electrical outlets that double as conduits for rainwater — and announced he didn't want to run it after all.

The county's quick estimate of the repair costs is $2 million, he said. "What if it turns out that it's $4 million? Who's going to have to go up to the commission and push for that? Who's going to be the bad guy?"

Well, he doesn't have to worry about that now because he's not the bad guy. And if he were — if he'd been in charge the entire time — he'd probably be voted out of office.

Which is why, I bet, the jail wouldn't be in this state in the first place. Elected officials know this is the sort of thing that gets them unelected. Direct accountability is one of the big advantages of public agencies running public facilities.

So, the decay at the jail is not an argument against the sheriff taking over. It's the best one I've heard for it. (And, Nugent said, when pressed, that this is still a possibility once the mess at the jail has been straightened out.)

Not that this whole thing is the fault of Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that runs the jail.

The building was poorly designed and constructed to begin with. Barbara Fisher, who monitors the county's contract with the jail, has an office there, so you wonder how she missed, for example, trash bags set out to catch water dripping from the roof on rainy days. It was probably right for County Administrator David Hamilton to suspend her boss, purchasing director Jim Gantt, on Friday, and definitely right for Hamilton to order an audit of his department.

But, so far, Hamilton hasn't said too much about CCA — how much of this is the company's fault and how many of these repairs it should have already taken care of. This is a "gray area," Hamilton said, though CCA's contract with the county says the company "shall be liable for all costs of repairs, improvements and maintenance."

There is a thick stack of correspondence between the company and Gantt for the auditor to review, so we also don't know yet how much CCA told the county about these problems and when they did it. We do know, though, that people who run a for-profit company don't have much incentive to make an issue out of problems they might have to pay for.

It's not their building, after all. Whatever you think about the inmates, it's ours.

Accountability would have prevented decay at Hernando County Jail 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 10:44am]
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