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Pasco County jail special report: The price of overcrowing



Sixty-two dollars. • It doesn't sound like much, until you multiply it by at least 1,000, and then multiply that by 365. • The Pasco County jail is a money pit. That doesn't exactly place it in exclusive company; segregating the people accused of criminal behavior is an expensive proposition for all communities.

The real toll is in ruined lives, but the cost to taxpayers is also extraordinary. At a time when the limp economy is forcing Pasco's government to cut millions from the budget, Sheriff Bob White figures to spend $30.7 million of his proposed $85 million budget on detention.

The jail that opened with 352 beds on a former pasture in Land O'Lakes in 1991 (when the county's population was 258,000) was supposed to be the solution to overcrowding that had forced a judge to order many inmates released. But like highways that start with wide-open, smooth pavement and steadily turn into virtual parking lots, the new jail has become like the old jail. Blame it on the population boom of the last two decades: Now the county has 470,000 people, and the jail has more than 1,000 inmates.

A new wing is set to open this month, which will reduce (although not eliminate) the overcrowding. But as politicians and others around the nation debate the costs of criminal justice and alternative to incarceration, this county sees little choice but to plan for an even newer, bigger jail campus.

To see what Pasco taxpayers are getting for their money, the St. Petersburg Times arbitrarily chose June 24 to take a snapshot of the jail, its operations and its population. Authorities said it was a typical day.

• • •

It began at 5 a.m. with an officer calling "Breakfast!" A turkey sandwich, prepackaged cereal and juice. Then most of the 1,025 prisoners went back to sleep until 6:30, when they were let out of their cells to mill about controlled commons areas.

Many of the cells are triple-bunked. Units designed to hold 64 prisoners now house 112. Capacity is 782, so on this day the jail was above that number by 31 percent.

Some prisoners live in overflow housing, little more than tents. They are mostly the 213 trusties — inmates serving misdemeanor sentences whose good behavior qualifies them for prison chores. They earn a day and a half off their sentence for every 40 hours they work in the laundry room, on the grounds crew, at the loading dock, in the vegetable garden, or elsewhere. Those who work in the kitchen help prepare lunch, which on June 24 was sausage, pasta, broccoli, salad, bread roll and strawberries and was served at 10:30.

The prisoners ate it on the picnic benches in the common rooms, where some watched TV or made collect phone calls. They have recreation three times a week: basketball and volleyball. No weight lifting.

That's if they behave. If not they lose those privileges. It happened June 24 at 10:20 in the A housing unit. One inmate accused another of stealing from him, and then the punches flew. Deputies pulled the prisoners apart and handcuffed them.

Chronic trouble-makers trade in their orange-and-white stripes for a red jumpsuit, and are placed on constant lock-down.

One guard is stationed at all times in each room, and several more watch through the tinted windows of the elevated control room. Operators hover over hundreds of switches controlling the metal doors and gates. They watch the monitors, tracking the people in the corridors, anticipating the next door they'll have to open, like in a video game.

Of the roughly 300 deputies who work at the jail, 76 are women, and only they can supervise the female inmates. On this day, that amounted to 240 women, or about a quarter of the jail's population.

Dinner, at 3:45, was fish, rice, coleslaw, salad, roll and cookies, rounding out the 1,800 calorie-per-day diet. The nurse came around at 4:15 with medication. Forty-six percent of the inmates take some medicine; 21 percent take prescribed psychotic drugs.

The D housing unit had a false fire alarm in the afternoon.

Forty-six people were booked this day; 38 released. Five inmates celebrated a birthday.

Seventy-seven percent of the inmates had at least one prior arrest in Pasco County. Twenty-five percent were there on drug charges, 43 percent for violating their probation, and 16 percent for violent crimes.

Before bed, the prisoners took showers with preset temperatures. They brushed their teeth with short-handled toothbrushes that couldn't be sharpened into weapons. Lights went out at 11.

• • •

This month, a new wing is scheduled to open, expanding the jail's capacity by 768 beds at a cost of $17 million.

The sheriff intends to close an auxiliary jail in New Port Richey and move 230 inmates to Land O'Lakes. The new wing has enough beds to put the jail under capacity for the first time in seven years; but there isn't enough staff to supervise all three floors, so the facility will still be slightly overcrowded.

Maj. Brian Head, who runs the jail, said that by 2015, there will be another new wing just like it, except four stories tall, with a new receiving bay and processing center on the first floor.

But after that, he said, this campus will be maxed out.

"We'll have to build another campus," he said.

Florida already locks up 100,000 of the nation's 2 million prisoners. The United States makes up 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population.

These figures have many politicians and officials wondering what could be done differently. Some advocate decriminalizing certain drugs, or mounting specialized rehabilitation programs. Some are searching for the root causes that motivate people to commit crimes and, often, to do so over and over again.

But these are psychological, sociological and economic issues that are beyond the domain of the Sheriff's Office, said Leonard Territo, a former jail administrator and a professor at Saint Leo University. The Sheriff's Office provides the warehousing and security, but it's up to lawmakers to decide who gets locked up.

Head's no professor, but he has been in the detention business for 23 years, and here's what he knows: The county keeps growing, crimes keep happening, people get arrested.

"All we can do is keep building," he said. "You rehabilitate who you can, and warehouse the rest."

Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at iarnsdorf@gmail.com.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Isaac Arnsdorf is a junior at Yale University, majoring in history. He is spending the summer as an intern in the Pasco office of the St. Petersburg Times. In between reporting dozens of daily news articles and features, he produced this package of stories about the Pasco County jail. Arnsdorf previously worked as an intern at The Seattle Times and the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. He leaves this week to return to Yale, where he will work on the student newspaper. His e-mail address is iarnsdorf@gmail.com

Pasco County jail special report: The price of overcrowing 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 1:17pm]

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