Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

State says prisoner re-entry center in Largo lacks basic security

LARGO — The cameras were in the wrong places, the lights didn't illuminate some key areas and the back fence has been all too easy for an inmate to hop.

A nine-page report from the state Department of Corrections found plenty of flaws at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, where two recent incidents led to inmates being charged with violent crimes.

The facility lacked some of the most basic security measures, according to the report. For instance, when state inspectors searched the facility thoroughly, they found "excessive amounts of unauthorized property" including five screwdrivers and six pairs of scissors, leading to 12 inmates being sent back to lockup at a state prison.

When the inspectors asked the inmates why they had so much contraband, "they advised routine searches of the rooms are not conducted by center staff due to staff shortages." So, among the report's recommendations: Start having routine searches.

The review found problems with more than just security at the work-release facility at 16432 U.S. 19 N, which is operated by Goodwill Industries as a base for inmates who have jobs outside. The report notes that 173 of the facility's inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, yet there is only one substance-abuse counselor on staff. As a result, drug-addicted inmates were frequently being released without getting any drug treatment.

"This is a good start," state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said of the report and its recommendations. But it doesn't go far enough, he said. He was particularly concerned about how easily inmates can pass back and forth through the gates on their bicycles. The report found that inmates walk or ride their bikes to employers in the area, and are supposed to come back if they don't find work.

"There is no way for the center to know if the inmate went to work or not unless he returns to the center," the report noted. So one recommendation that's already been implemented calls for the employers to show up at the center and get the inmates they want to employ.

Latvala said he now has questions about how Goodwill runs all of its work-release facilities, and he's convinced that the one in Largo is simply too large for the residential neighborhood in which it sits.

The Largo facility has been under increased scrutiny because of two incidents involving its inmates. In September, Michael Scott Norris escaped from the Largo facility. Police say he killed two men in the Kenwood neighborhood of St. Petersburg and set the home where they were working on fire.

Then, earlier this month, police made an arrest at the Largo facility. They accused Dustin Kennedy, 28, of attacking and raping a 17-year-old girl as she walked to her school bus stop in Clearwater.

A Tampa Bay Times review of state records found that inmates escape from the center about once every two weeks — 27 times in the year that ended June 2012 and 26 times in each of the previous two years.

Information from Bay News 9 was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]

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