After conducting an 11-day surveillance operation, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the Goodwill-run Largo work release center should be closed immediately.
"I'm over it, I think the place needs to be shut down," Gualtieri said Thursday. "They obviously haven't fixed it."
Gualtieri sent undercover deputies to observe the center this month after repeated complaints from nearby residents. He said his deputies saw several instances of what he called "suspicious activity," including:
• Inmates stashing banned items, such as lighters and cellphones, in bushes or other hiding places before returning to or leaving the facility.
• An inmate who rode a bicycle to 58th Street and Roosevelt Boulevard to conduct what Gualtieri called "a hand-to-hand transaction." Investigators also saw two inmates go to a nearby motel known for drug activity.
• And in one case that Gualtieri said particularly galled him, a detective was approached by a Goodwill employee who said the detective's undercover car matched the description of a vehicle used to help an inmate escape the previous night. Yet Goodwill had not reported the escape to authorities, as required by its contract with the state.
"I can definitely see the citizens' concern just from what we saw in limited surveillance," Gualtieri said. "It just seems to be very, very loosely run with no accountability."
Investigations by the Tampa Bay Times have shown a pattern of lax supervision at the center and that, contrary to popular belief, violent inmates were often housed there and at other state work release facilities. After a story in February, the state stopped allowing murderers into the program. On Sunday, another story detailed more problems, including lax discipline, improper sexual activity by inmates and Goodwill's failure to verify inmates were working.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash said prison officials have received Gualtieri's report.
"We are reviewing the document and reviewing the contract with the Largo work release center and . . . anything and everything that may be related," she told the Times Thursday.
State Sen. Jack Latvala said he asked Gov. Rick Scott to shutter the facility after he learned of the sheriff's findings.
"He took what I said very seriously, and he understood where I was coming from," Latvala said. "I do not think Goodwill has demonstrated the ability to continue running that place."
The Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, at U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, has been a sore point for years among neighbors, partly because of the large number of inmates who are allowed to walk unsupervised from the center to jobs in the community.
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.
Gualtieri said a representative of the Japanese consulate in Miami recently visited him about that attack. "They're very, very concerned," he said.
Goodwill officials did not respond to Thursday's developments except to say they did report the escape. But Gualtieri said that report came after his detective encountered the Goodwill employee later on June 7, several hours after the escape.
A deputy then found that Goodwill's records showed the inmate was in his room during a 2 a.m. bed check but missing during a 4 a.m. check. Yet surveillance video showed him sneaking out at 12:40 a.m.
And although Goodwill officials shared some details of the escape, they did not tell the deputy they had learned the tag number of the vehicle used in the escape.
"The whole thing was just totally, totally mishandled by them," Gualtieri said.
The missing inmate was captured June 12 in Orange County, according to a state corrections spokeswoman.
During the surveillance, Gualtieri said, his detectives regularly saw inmates stashing items, including phones and lighters, in hiding places all along U.S. 19.
Contraband has been an issue at the center. For example, in spite of the ban on cellphones, inmate Dustin Kennedy was found with two phones when he was arrested. Both belonged to the rape victim.
Resident Carol Dattoli, who lives near the site of the rape, said she is "ecstatic" over the sheriff's recommendation.
"This restores my faith in our system," said Dattoli, 67. "This is everything we've been seeing . . . and finally it's in black and white."
Residents held a meeting with Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper in May to again voice complaints. The lawmakers pledged to keep close tabs on the center. The same month, the state signed a contract allowing Goodwill to operate the program for five more years.
Gualtieri said Thursday that he recognizes the value of work release programs. But, he said, they need to be "done right and by the right organization, and this is not being done."
"If the inmates thought they would have consequences for this type of conduct, they wouldn't be doing it."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com