LARGO — Although escapes and violent crimes allegedly committed by inmates have recently caused controversy for a Largo work release center, state officials have previously given the facility positive reviews.
The 280-inmate Largo Residential Re-Entry Center — the largest work release center in Florida — opened in 2008. Records show it had the highest number of escapes during the past three years — about one every other week.
Goodwill operates the center at 16432 U.S. 19 N under a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections, which monitors how well the facility is performing.
State reports generally paint a good picture. In 2011, for example, state auditors found no areas in which the work release center was failing to comply.
But an audit in March pointed to a serious concern relating to how frequently the staff was contacting inmates' employers.
That's an important safety matter because when convicted felons are out of the center, they are supposed to be working jobs. If they're not at their jobs as required, it raises questions about what they're actually doing.
The March audit said: "Job checks were not in compliance on nearly half of the inmates reviewed. This raises strong concerns for inmate accountability."
Then, in September, the auditors said "the contractor has made great improvements in this area of inmate accountability but still has room for improvement." The report said five out of 27 inmates reviewed "were not in compliance with job checks."
Less than three weeks after that, police said, inmate Michael Scott Norris escaped from the facility and was arrested and charged with murdering two men in St. Petersburg on a day he was supposed to be working at a restaurant on The Pier.
This week another inmate, Dustin Kennedy, was arrested on a charge of raping a 17-year-old in December. He had been walking back from a legitimate job site and was not considered an escapee.
In state reviews of the center's performance, the auditors did find other violations, but some were for issues that did not directly relate to public safety. For example, the March audit criticized the center for failing to launder the washcloths regularly, and for an insufficient family visitation area.
It's not only state auditors who scrutinize the center.
So do parents like Barbara Beresford, a mom of twin 9-year-olds who lives in a nearby subdivision. She said she sees inmates gathered at a bus stop near the center early in the morning.
"They don't have chaperones as far as I can tell. … I don't see anybody out there making sure that they're getting on the bus," she said.
Billy Dennison, 69, lives part of the year at Donovan Mobile Home Park, about 100 yards from the facility.
Residents of the 55-and-older park often walk near the center, Dennison said. He said he feels like state regulators don't care about residents' concerns.
He noted neighbors raised questions about the facility when it was established there in 2008.
"It really concerns me," he said. "It's almost like we have no voice."