Sunday, November 19, 2017
Public safety

Troubled Largo work release center closed, all inmates removed

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida prison officials shut down the Goodwill-run work release center in Largo early Friday, swooping in before dawn to remove the troubled program's 190 inmates at the direction of Gov. Rick Scott.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews said the state will terminate its nearly $10.4 million, five-year contract with the nonprofit, citing "multiple violations of department policy" that "constitute a real and immediate threat to public safety."

"The most egregious of these was an inaccurate inmate count conducted by Goodwill which allowed an escaped inmate to go undetected for almost three hours, as well as continuing to allow inmates to walk to a nearby employer after such activity had been prohibited," Crews said in a statement.

The closing came just a day after Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced the results of an undercover operation that revealed the same problems documented in a series of stories by the Tampa Bay Times.

The Times showed a pattern of lax supervision at the center and that, contrary to popular belief, violent inmates, including murderers, were often housed there and at other state work release facilities. Sunday's Times carried an in-depth investigation that detailed other violations, including lax discipline, improper sexual activity by inmates and Goodwill's failure to verify inmates were working as required.

"It was the right thing to do," Gualtieri said of the closure Friday. "Goodwill has had opportunities to fix this. If they thought everybody wasn't serious about it, they now know we are. . . . This is an example of the way government should work."

Gualtieri sent deputies to observe the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center for 11 days this month after repeated complaints from nearby residents.

He said his deputies saw an alarming — and blatant — amount of misbehavior, including inmates who stashed banned items in bushes and other hiding spots before returning to or leaving the facility, inmates going to places other than work and hanging out at a motel known for drug activity.

The violation that galled the sheriff most was an inmate who got an hours-long head start on an escape because Goodwill didn't report him missing. The escape came to light only after a Goodwill employee mentioned it after approaching an undercover officer in the same kind of car the inmate escaped in, he said.

A sheriff's investigation found that Goodwill records showed the inmate present at a 2 a.m. bed check, but missing at 4 a.m.; however, the center's own surveillance showed him hopping a fence at 12:40 a.m.

Goodwill officials disputed the sheriff's account in statement released late Friday.

Goodwill officials discovered the inmate missing at 4:16 a.m. and called the state at 4:52 a.m. after searching the center, according to the statement released by Goodwill Industries president Deborah Passerini.

The Sheriff's Office was called at 5:47 a.m., she said.

A state corrections spokeswoman told the Times on Thursday that Goodwill didn't report the escape until 6 a.m.

The inmate was found five days later in Orange County.

The state emptied the center at 4 a.m. Friday, but officials would not say where the inmates were taken or where they ultimately will be housed, citing security reasons.

Neighbors of the Largo center were ecstatic about its closing.

"I feel like I have my home back," said Carol Dattoli, 67, president of the Whitney Lakes Neighborhood Association. "What a gift."

Scott issued a statement Friday saying he appreciated the work of Gualtieri and state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, on the issue.

Latvala said he was surprised, but pleased, at how quickly Scott moved on the issue. "He's really shown me something today."

The center, opened in 2008 at U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, has been a sore point for years among neighbors.

But the controversy intensified in September after an inmate escaped — leaving the center several hours before his restaurant shift began — and killed two men in St. Petersburg. Less than three months later, another inmate raped a 17-year-old Japanese exchange student near the center. That inmate had left for work nearly an hour before his shift began at a business just a five-minute walk away.

"I really thought that Goodwill would get a handle on the situation and get that place straightened out," said Latvala, who met with residents as recently as May.

A corrections spokeswoman said that while the state has severed its contract with Goodwill to run the Largo center, the nonprofit still will be allowed to operate a female work release facility on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg.

Passerini's statement said Goodwill was disappointed by the decision to shut down the Largo center and stood by the nonprofit's work to help rehabilitate felons.

Rep. Ed Hooper, who also represents the area, said he believes this experience should make Scott and state leaders rethink the plan to privatize more work release centers.

Goodwill has run prison programs for 50 years, but began growing its work release programs in the past decade. The nonprofit aggressively pursued state contracts that brought in millions in revenue, even as they grappled with serious security issues, the most recent Times investigation found.

"Profit became more important than the safety of the community," said Fordham Hutton, a former Goodwill employee who was in charge of making sure the nonprofit followed the rules in its state contract. "The newspaper did a great job shedding light. Had it not come out in the paper . . . they would still go on like they were."

John Barous, who owns a bike shop next to the center, organized protests before the center opened. Two years ago, he moved to California because he feared for his daughter's safety. He is still trying to sell his building.

"I feel relieved and I feel vindicated," he said. "But what happened to the community was terrible. We paid the price for Goodwill's profit."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

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