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This jailbird's no average Joe

There are 1,609 inmates in the Hillsborough County Jail at Orient Road. Among them are accused child abusers and rapists, even a woman charged with killing her father's homosexual lover. There are, however, only a few serving time for zoning violations.

The best known of these scofflaws is Joe Redner, impresario of four nude dance clubs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Since Jan. 15, Redner, 51, has been serving a 90-day sentence for operating a special cabaret in violation of a Tampa city ordinance. This is the fourth time Redner has been jailed on charges related to his businesses.

"It's an occupational hazard," Redner says, unrepentant.

In county custody, Redner is known by various numbers: 172247 (his permanent identity number in the Sheriff's Office computer), or 92-1802 (indicating that he was the 1,802nd person booked into jail this year), or simply as the temporary occupant of cell 5D28A.

Gone are Redner's expensive clothes. In their place, he wears a styleless ensemble of beige smock and pants that is conspicuously absent of buttons, zippers or belts. The shoes are blue canvas sneakers without laces.

His jewelry is waiting in an envelope with the other valuables he brought to jail with him. He looks much less imposing in this environment than when he denounces religious censorship at Hillsborough County Commission meetings.

He looks like any other inmate. He is treated like any other inmate. But Redner is still Redner, equal parts entertainer and civil libertarian.

He gets fan mail daily. He estimates that 70 percent of the inmates and deputies know him by face or name.

He's probably the closest thing to a celebrity many of them know.

They've seen him on television _ at one of the numerous public hearings or during one of his publicized arrests. Many have been his customers. Redner knows this because either they tell him they patronize his businesses or he recognizes them as regulars.

Lest it be presumed that only criminals frequent his clubs, Redner adds, "There are four or five deputies who've told me they go to my clubs."

Model jail,

model prisoner

Redner assumes the tone of a worldly critic when he begins to detail his jail experience.

"This is as humane a jail as I've been in," Redner says. "There are certain comforts you have in here. Universal gym. Basketball court. They keep the incidence of problems down. You can see there's not as much animosity between prisoners and between the inmates and the guards.

"I haven't even seen anybody raise their voices."

He calls the staff "highly professional."

Breakfast, which he awakes at 5:30 a.m. to eat, is "satisfactory." He takes a nap before attending a morning class in pursuit of his high school equivalency diploma.

"I'm doing some English s--- on the computer," he says. "It teaches you grammar."

For every two classes he attends, he knocks a day off his sentence.

At 11:30 a.m., he and other inmates are locked down while lunch is prepared. That's when he reads the four papers he has delivered every day: the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune.

After lunch, he's back in class for another two-hour session.

Twice a week he attends an AIDS awareness seminar. If he attends five sessions, he'll earn another day off his sentence.

At 5 p.m., he reports to the jail's kitchen, where he works a shift in the "trusty" program. It's Redner's job to put freezer bags over the nozzle of an industrial-sized pipe that disgorges food from large vats.

"It's a day off for every day you do it," he says.

Calculating all his gain time, Redner estimates he will be released from jail Saturday. He will have served 41 days of his sentence and cost the county about $2,132.

In the words of sheriff's Maj. Steve Saunders, "Redner has the system pegged. And that's the way we like it."

Redner, who describes himself as a model prisoner, has just one complaint: "You can't get any dandruff shampoo in here."

Just about every day, Redner receives mail.

Redner's mail, like that of other inmates, is opened by deputies checking for contraband. It is doubtful, however, that other inmates receive letters from nude dancers named Heather.

Heather sent her boss a chatty letter informing him that she and Sabrina, another dancer, dressed up as wenches for the Gasparilla Parade. Just so Redner would know which Heather sent the letter, she writes, "This is the Heather who loves you and misses you."

Apparently that wasn't a sufficient clue.

"I've got 115 girls working for me," Redner says. "I must have four Heathers."

Redner shrugs, adding that he's certain he'd recognize her in person.

In contempt _ again

Redner's experience with the penalty phase of the legal system dates to 1979, when he did a 65-day stretch in the old Tampa stockade for contempt of court. He had opened a club in violation of a court order.

In the early 1980s, Redner was charged with resisting arrest violently. He took extreme umbrage at the accusation, because he says he prides himself on his savoir-faire during police actions at his clubs.

"I never resist," Redner says, almost indignantly. "I've been arrested over 140 times."

During the trial, Redner offered the judge an unsolicited opinion to the effect that one of the police officers was lying. The judge told Redner to shut up, but when the second officer contradicted the first, Redner couldn't restrain himself.

"Judge, I know they're both lying, but now you know one of them definitely is!" he said.

That outburst earned him 21 days in jail for contempt of court.

In 1988, Redner served 13 days of a Citrus County sentence. For reasons he doesn't recall, he was transferred to the Sumter County Jail, a facility he described as so bad it made a Soviet gulag look preferable.

He sent a letter to 60 Minutes expressing that opinion, and it was included in the viewer mail portion of the show, he said. He spent another 37 days in the Citrus County Jail to finish that sentence in 1991.

This 90-day sentence was four years in coming. The original charge dates back to 1987, when the city enforced a new ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to operate a nude dance club within 500 feet of a residential area or within 1,000 feet of another nude dance club.

Some people resign themselves to their punishment. Redner is not one of them.

While he plods through his jailhouse routine, his attorney, Luke Lirot, is shepherding two writs of habeas corpus through state and federal courts. Lirot is trying to have Redner's sentence overturned on the grounds that the ordinance was not enacted properly.

The irony is that Redner will be home and riding his Harley-Davidson before either of these proceedings is resolved. But the proceedings will continue. If Redner wins, he might be entitled to damages for being wrongfully imprisoned.

In fact, Redner is still fighting his Citrus County sentence, Lirot says.

It's not for the money, Redner says. "It's the principle of the thing.

"Taking away my liberty is the worst thing you can do to me," he says. "That's why I fight so hard.

"I'll go to jail if I have to. It's my way of protesting a violation of my rights. If a guy can go to war and die for his country and not know what he's fighting for, then I can do a few days in jail.

"This is exactly what I was made for."