It should not have taken the murders of two men and the rape of a teenage girl for the Florida Department of Corrections to realize that something was wrong at the privatized Largo Residential Re-Entry Center — the largest work-release program in the state. Now state officials are pledging reforms there and the operator, Goodwill Industries, appears to be responding. But the evidence of lax state oversight should give pause to the continued campaign in Tallahassee to privatize more of the state's corrections services.
The findings from a Jan. 7 surprise inspection at the 281-bed Largo center at 16432 U.S. 19 N were less than assuring given that the facility should have been on notice to up its performance. Inmate Michael Scott Norris was arrested in October and charged with committing the September murders of two men in St. Petersburg when he was supposed to be working at a local restaurant. And inmate Dustin Kennedy was arrested Jan. 2 on charges of raping a 17-year-old girl he encountered while walking back from a job site in December.
Twelve of the 125 inmates present at the time of the search were sent back to prison for possession of contraband — from screwdrivers to cash. Corrections officials noted gaps in the facility security, from too-low fences and unlit perimeters to video cameras that were defective and those that were working not being closely monitored. And an unsecure front gate made it too easy for inmates to enter and exit without detection.
Also noted: Nearly half of inmates released in the 2011-12 fiscal year who were identified as needing substance abuse counseling did not receive any. None of the records checked for 21 inmates met the state's requirement for three employment checks a month. And the report underscored quality-of-life issues for the neighborhood, including complaints that inmates littered and intimidated others at nearby bus stops.
None of those issues arose overnight. Even Goodwill Industries noted in an article Wednesday in the Tampa Bay Times that it was surprised by the state's extensive findings given that previous inspections had been generally favorable. That may be the most disturbing news of all: that such operations were previously acceptable to the state.
That raises questions about how well the state is overseeing privately run work-release centers, particularly given that they have a higher escape rate than those managed directly by the corrections department. In 2011-12, 47 inmates out of every 1,000 at privately run work-release centers ultimately failed to comply with the program and were deemed escapees. In state-run facilities, that number was 36.
Both state Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper, who represent the district that includes the Largo center, have promised to keep up pressure to ensure that the lapses in Largo are resolved and to consider broader implications for how work-release centers are run. They should not be the only ones. Legislative leaders frequently cite privatization as a solution to the state's perpetual budget demands. But when it comes to public safety, there is always more to the equation than just dollars and cents.