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State renews contract with Goodwill for St. Petersburg work release center

ST. PETERSBURG — When the state shuttered a troubled Goodwill-run work release center in Largo last week, it accused the nonprofit of repeatedly violating policies and said its deficiencies were a threat to public safety.

But officials have not completely severed ties with the charity.

On Sunday, the Department of Corrections renewed a contract with Goodwill Industries-Suncoast for its other work release center in St. Petersburg. The deal means Goodwill will operate the Suncoast Work Release Center on Gandy Boulevard for another five years.

When asked why, given Goodwill's rocky record with the Largo operation, state corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said she could offer no details.

"We actually don't get into things like that. We never get into stuff like that," Howard said. "It was an option. We chose to exercise that option."

Last week's closing of the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center was a dramatic end to a controversy that began in September when an inmate escaped and killed two people. Three months later a second prisoner raped a 17-year-old student near the facility.

As authorities investigated those crimes, a series of investigative stories by the Tampa Bay Times revealed chronic security and supervision issues at the Largo center. Then a recent undercover operation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office revealed many of those same issues, prompting local law enforcement and lawmakers to call for the closure.

The newspaper's investigation revealed oversight problems at both of Goodwill's facilities. But less attention has been paid to the smaller Gandy work release center, which houses 155 female inmates.

While the Largo facility was located in a converted motel off U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, the St. Petersburg one is tucked into the nonprofit's headquarters at 10596 Gandy Blvd.

It blends in easier and is on the same campus as a Goodwill retail store and other offices. It also has not been the target of complaints by neighbors, though it is near businesses and condominiums.

In a statement released Tuesday evening, Goodwill officials said: "We were disappointed and surprised that the Largo facility was closed. We had collaborated with DOC to develop new processes including electronic monitoring for that facility, and we felt they would work. The closure caused us to let 42 personnel go, and nearly 200 offenders are now back in prison instead of transitioning to work.

"Goodwill's work-release programs meet all DOC guidelines and we continually look for ways to improve our processes."

Meanwhile, the state has yet to say what will become of the 190 inmates who were moved on Friday. Inmates' family members say they have received little information.

Still unclear is whether inmates, many who had jobs, will be allowed to return to Pinellas County. The Largo center was the largest in the state, and even though there are four other work release centers in Pinellas, the key will be finding bed space.

Robert Griffiths, 67, of St. Petersburg said his son was at the Largo facility for about six weeks and is now at a receiving center in Orlando.

Griffiths said corrections officials on Tuesday told him the goal is for inmates to get a shot at another work release program — if there is room.

"I just hope the state does right by the people who weren't doing anything wrong," said Griffiths, who noted that his son had two jobs. "There's another side to this. This is just not fair to them."

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

State renews contract with Goodwill for St. Petersburg work release center 07/02/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 9:08pm]
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