Friday, June 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Is it work-release or hide-and-seek?

Considering that the eternally flummoxed Sgt. Schultz was a more eagle-eyed custodian of his prisoners than Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, it's curious that the Florida Department of Corrections would renew yet another contract with the nonprofit to monitor the comings and goings — but mostly goings — of inmates.

Isn't this a bit like rewarding National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden with a job at the CIA?

Perhaps that explains why Goodwill's new five-year contract with the DOC to run the Suncoast Work Release Center on Gandy Boulevard has been re-upped for about $6.8 million. Let the hide-and-seek games begin.

It was probably just a hint that Margaret Dumont had more control over the Marx Brothers than Goodwill did over the work-release prisoners under its authority in a Largo center.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's interest was sparked after inmates at the Largo center were involved in two murders and a rape while supposedly under the watchful eye of Goodwill officials. The sheriff's sleuths discovered work-release inmates in possession of contraband, drug use, sexual activity and at least one other unreported escape. Good grief, Goodwill also seemed unable to verify whether work-release prisoners ever actually did any work.

It didn't take long for Gov. Rick Scott, embarrassed perhaps that the work-release program in Largo was beginning to look like The Breakfast Club only with more tattoos, voided the state's $10.4 million contract with Goodwill and relocated whatever prisoners could be found to other corrections facilities.

Given that Goodwill demonstrated all the care over its charges as the hapless guard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it seemed odd the DOC would simply renew the Goodwill Gandy Boulevard work-release operation without at least seeking bids.

But when Tampa Bay Times reporter Kameel Stanley raised that issue with DOC spokeswoman Ann Howard, she declined to offer an explanation.

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

Ah, at last. The DOC finally is able to keep something from getting out.

Given Goodwill's checkered history in securely operating a work-release center, wouldn't you suspect the DOC has an obligation to assure the public it has performed its due diligence in awarding a contract to an agency that previously put public safety at risk?

Howard was suggesting the DOC doesn't "go into things like that" in forking over about $6.8 million in public money to an organization that had one of its work-release centers shut down because inmates were running amok. Really?

The DOC never gets "into stuff like that" — like escapes, contraband, drugs, sex acts, felonies — in evaluating a publicly funded contractor's ability to safely administer a work-release program? Is that so?

The Gandy Boulevard facility sits on Goodwill's headquarters campus and houses 155 female inmates. While not quite the "let the good times roll" problem the Largo center experienced, the Gandy site has had its own share of issues over the years.

Goodwill officials say they were "disappointed" and "surprised" the Largo facility was closed. If they were not all that surprised — or aware — when work-release residents were fooling around, not showing up for their jobs, possessing contraband and escaping, well yes, it would probably come as something of a surprise.

Properly vetted inmates nearing the end of their sentences ought to be given an opportunity to assimilate back into society through a rigidly supervised work-release program.

But when the very agency charged with administrating that program has proven to be more inept than the Keystone Kops, the DOC has an obligation to provide something beyond a mealymouthed explanation for why it forked over $6.8 million to Goodwill than, "We actually don't get into things like that."

Now would be a good time to start.

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