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Goodwill responds to state audit of Largo work-release facility

LARGO — Goodwill Industries said it is working to improve operations at its work-release center, a day after a state report blasted the lack of security and oversight there.

But the organization also said it was surprised by many of the state's findings, especially since previous inspections have been generally favorable.

In a nine-page report made available Monday, the state Department of Corrections asked Goodwill to make several changes at its Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, including keeping closer tabs on inmates and their work schedules, installing razor wire fencing, fixing security cameras and adding lighting.

"We take all this very seriously," Chris Ward, a Goodwill spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

Goodwill submitted a corrective action plan Monday, which the state is reviewing, said Misty Cash, a corrections spokeswoman.

Goodwill opened the Largo work-release center, part of Florida's system to help prison inmates transition back into society before they are freed, a few years ago in a former motel at 16432 U.S. 19 N.

Since then, the 281-bed facility has become the state's largest. It also has held the record for the most escapes — about one every two weeks — for each of the past three years.

The facility has come under increasing scrutiny in the past several months after local authorities accused one work-release inmate of killing two men and another of rape.

Earlier this month, the state conducted a surprise security audit, which led to a dozen inmates being sent back to prison for violating rules and possessing contraband.

Monday's report was the result of that visit.

State officials recommended Goodwill staffers conduct regular room searches and better secure the front gate to keep inmates from leaving undetected.

The report noted Goodwill already has implemented an earlier 10 p.m. curfew and committed to adding another substance-abuse counselor after the audit found that 47 percent of inmates were released without receiving such services.

The report also criticized staffers for not doing job checks or immediately reporting incidents. The state didn't find out about the troubles with inmate Dustin Kennedy until his Jan. 2 arrest on rape charges, even though another facility inmate had been questioned about the same incident, the report said.

In September, Michael Scott Norris escaped from the Largo facility and killed two men in St. Petersburg, police said.

Ward said Goodwill is "distraught" over the two incidents. She also said Goodwill has started transporting some inmates to nearby jobs and requiring day labor employers to come to the center to hire people.

Cash said the DOC will continue to follow up with Goodwill.

"We're committed to make sure all those things are completed," she said Tuesday.

State Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper, who both said they learned through the newspaper that the state's largest work-release facility was in their district, have said the recommendations are a good start, but much work is left to do.

Both legislators visited the center after the audit and pointed out security issues. They also met with residents of nearby mobile home parks who have raised concerns about the facility for years.

Latvala said he expects to meet with Goodwill officials soon. Hooper said three top Goodwill officials sought him out in Tallahassee last week.

"They were trying to say all the right things," he said Tuesday. "They said that they are working on changing things. … I think they want to keep their contract and their prisoner count. The key will be how much is done. This issue is not going to die or go away without some resolution."

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

Goodwill responds to state audit of Largo work-release facility 01/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 6:45pm]

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