Sheriff Charles Dean thinks Citrus County's makeshift jail in the county auditorium works so well that the state should consider it a model for use in other counties. Dean sent his second-in-command, Maj. Buddy Mortimer, to the capital Tuesday to pitch the idea to the jail review committee of the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
Under court order to relieve overcrowding in the old jail in Inverness, county workers converted the auditorium into a jail in 10 days last October by ripping out the stage and dividing 10,000 square feet of floor space into three "bullpens" surrounded by chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
County officials estimated the transformation cost $220,000, about half what a conventional "fast track construction" jail of the same capacity would have cost, Mortimer said.
"We feel that what we've accomplished there and the cost (savings) we've realized in this construction beg for examination," Mortimer said. "We think this warrants a close look as a permanent facility."
Dean told the County Commission last week that he does not want to make the auditorium a permanent jail. Rather, he said, he wants the state to approve the concept so that the county could construct a similar building in the future, sometime after the completion of the new 400-bed jail planned for downtown Inverness.
Jerry Vaughan, DOC inspector general, told Mortimer that corrections officials would "look at it and get back to you with what we find."
He added that the county's approach, which was approved only on a temporary basis, does not conform to the DOC's rules for jail construction.
"Chain-link fences have been used to separate compounds before, in jails," Vaughan said, "but I don't know of anywhere they use it as you do in Citrus County."
Mortimer said the Sheriff's Office is "prepared to carry the ball" to seek legislative approval for whatever changes might be necessary.
What is innovative about the Citrus experiment, he said, was the use of chain-link fences to create three pens, leaving the entire floor open to view from a central control station.
The prisoners are divided into two groups of 32 prisoners and a third group of 47, Mortimer said. Prisoners in each enclosure have direct access to a restroom. Each enclosure has its own TV set.
Just outside the building are two trailers that serve as a kitchen and an infirmary. A fenced area outside the building serves as a recreation area.
Despite the TVs, about 100 prisoners and the lack of solid walls, the auditorium is surprisingly quiet, said jail administrator Capt. Roberta Moffatt.
The area is air conditioned and fitted with an acoustical tile ceiling, although the floor is bare concrete. No major disputes have arisen among prisoners, she said.
Even minor infractions are punished by sending the offender back to the main jail, which poorer ventilation and surroundings, as well as a tougher class of criminals.
"By the next day, they're pleading to go back to the auditorium," Moffatt said.
- Staff writer Victoria White contributed to this report.