Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

Controversial Largo work release center gets surprise security check

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LARGO — State authorities spent several hours inspecting a Goodwill-run work-release facility Monday, days after questions were raised about security and oversight there.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard issued a statement Monday afternoon, a little more than six hours after the "unannounced security audit" began at Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, 16432 U.S. 19 N.

"If during this review it is discovered changes need to be made, then the department will make those changes immediately," she said.

Tampa Bay Times journalists on Monday observed at least two men in handcuffs as the inspection progressed. Officials also led police dogs around the facility. At one point, authorities processed inmates' belongings through what appeared to be a portable scanning device.

The center made news last week when Pinellas sheriff's deputies arrested an inmate, Dustin Kennedy, and accused him of raping a 17-year-old girl he encountered while walking back from a job site in December. The girl had been walking to her school bus stop.

This came after another inmate, Michael Scott Norris, was arrested in connection with the Sept. 30 murders of two men in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood of St. Petersburg.

The Largo facility is the largest work-release center in the state, and also has the most escapes — more than two dozen per year in each of the past three years.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he was on the phone with DOC officials Friday morning after reading a Times investigation into the facility. He said he asked the department to investigate fully.

State reviews have generally given the center good marks for security procedures, but the recent cases raised questions.

In Kennedy's case, deputies found two cell phones in his possession that they said belonged to the rape victim. Inmates are not allowed to have cell phones.

In Norris' case, he had ostensibly been released from the center that day to work, but he apparently got out several hours before his shift was to begin.

Police records indicate he also had been frequenting a local gym — even though inmates are not allowed out for recreational purposes. And according to police reports, he told officers "that he would leave the work release facility early and go hang out with his girlfriend … (he) made it sound like this was a daily routine and he stated that he was not supposed to be doing this, because of his work-release restrictions."

Latvala said he was disturbed to learn about the men's violations. "If there's one, there's probably others," he said.

Latvala said he spoke Friday with DOC Secretary Michael Crews, who pledged to investigate.

"I had no idea that they had 280 inmates in that building," Latvala said. "I mean that's basically a motel, a converted motel."

Howard said she did not know what was discovered during Monday's check. She also could not say whether the handcuffed men were returned to prison.

Work-release placement is considered a privilege, Howard said.

When inmates break the rules by keeping contraband items such as drugs, alcohol or weapons, they're sent back to prison to complete their sentences.

"There's not a lot of flexibility or leeway … we're serious about it," she said.

Authorities arrived at the work-release center about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Uniformed men wearing white gloves went in and out of rooms. Others sifted through clear plastic bags filled with clothes and other items.

Steve Interdonato, who manages the bike shop next door, said he saw a few police cars at the facility after Norris' arrest, but he couldn't recall anything similar to what happened Monday morning.

"Not with this many guys in suits," he said.

The bike shop joined local residents in protesting the center moving into the neighborhood a few years ago.

"That's exactly what people thought would happen when this place came here — that people would be murdered, people would get raped," he said. "Nobody has done anything. They don't seem to care."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or [email protected] Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]

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