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Jail officer sees humor, headaches in job

It seemed like a simple request. The woman wanted to show her boyfriend, an inmate at the county jail, his birthday card.

No problem, corrections officer Paul Cabrera said.

Then, a few minutes later, while making his rounds, Cabrera spotted the woman with her shirt open and her bare chest pressed against the glass. The birthday message was written across her body: "Happy birthday. I love you."

The officer cut the visit short, scolded the young woman and banned her from future visits.

That's just one of the amusing episodes from Cabrera's job as the visitation officer at the Hernando County Jail.

The funny situations are common, but there are also times when Cabrera's job can be difficult, even dangerous. Since taking the position about a year ago, Cabrera has endured harassment by inmates and visitors and has had threats against his life.

The abuse typically comes from those who do not follow the rules of visitation. In response, visits are canceled. Sometimes arrests are made, especially when someone attempts to smuggle in contraband _ from tobacco to drugs to weapons.

"A few months ago, this inmate's 16-year-old wife, who was about eight months' pregnant, was caught trying to give him marijuana and other contraband during a contact visit," Cabrera said.

"It really bothered me to see that. . . . She was booked because her husband convinced her to do something stupid."

There are two visitation periods per day at the jail _ at 2 p.m. and at 6:30 p.m. Visitors must be checked in 15 minutes before the hour _ no exceptions.

The reason, Cabrera said, is because he has to get the inmates and bring them to the visiting area. Any time lost because of late arrivals, and the complaints from inmates would pour in.

"That is why people need to be here on time," he said. "It is usually the ones I turn away that get ugly."

The best thing to do to avoid problems, Cabrera said, is to call the jail ahead of time. Anyone who wants to visit an inmate should first see if the inmate is on the visitors sheet.

Also, visitors should be aware of the jail's dress code, which requires wearing shirts and shoes, no cut-off shorts or miniskirts.

When tight situations cannot be resolved, Cabrera sends visitors to Maryann Sacino, who schedules contact visits and works closely with Cabrera.

"Sometimes it can get out of hand. . . . I've even had one (visitor) raise a hand to me," said Sacino, who stands under 5 feet tall. "Some people don't understand we have rules."

Cabrera registers an average of 40 visitors a day. He checks their identification and scans their bodies with a metal detector. He then rounds up the inmates and brings them to the visiting area.

Contact visits, which are allowed for inmates with no disciplinary problems, must be scheduled in advance with Sacino. Those visits allow inmates and their visitors to see one another in a room without barriers.

Cabrera is constantly in contact with inmates, their friends, families and sometimes their victims. It is for that reason that rules must be enforced.

"(Cabrera's) position is a vulnerable area to work across the country," said the jail's assistant warden, Kevin Ashburn.

"I've heard of incidents where people bring in guns, knives and drugs, but cigarettes really seem to be the big thing. . . . In this game of people coming in and out, screening is important."

Ashburn said he couldn't recall a situation at the Hernando jail that resulted in injury. However, Cabrera has had a brush with danger outside of work, when he was confronted by a man at a Wal-Mart store. Cabrera recognized him as a visitor who once arrived at the jail too late to visit an inmate.

"He had threatened me at the jail, and got in my face at the store," Cabrera said.

The man followed Cabrera into the parking lot but left when the officer took his weapon out of his car and placed it in the side of his pants.

Many of his co-workers do not envy Cabrera's position. Among them is William Storebeck, who worked as visitation officer for several months during his eight-year tenure at the jail.

"It wasn't the best job," said Storebeck, now a supervisor. "You get tired of the stories, the lying, the arguing."

But the funny situations are more frequent than the unpleasant ones, Cabrera said.

Take, for instance, the inmate who listed six women under "wife" on the visitors sheet. Cabrera tries to avoid visits in which more than one lover comes to see an inmate at the same time. But it doesn't always work.

"I try to be sensitive to (inmates') needs," Cabrera said. "My job is to detain and take care of them, not to punish them. As far as I'm concerned, there are some innocent as well as guilty here."

Cabrera, 32, was an electrician for 13 years before going to work at the jail. With the support of his wife, Stephanie, he spent a year in school to become a corrections officer. The couple have a 9-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

"It was tough," Cabrera said. "I wasn't working. . . . We lived off our savings. But my wife was behind me all the way."

Cabrera was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Tampa. He always wanted to be a police officer, though he doubted he could do it.

But law enforcement was in his blood: His great-grandfather was a sheriff and his brother is a corrections deputy in Hillsborough County. So he went after his dream.

Corrections Corporation of America, the company that operates the jail, hired Cabrera in June 1995.

He started as a laundry officer, which he said was "a big shock. . . . I got a lot of abuse there." He soon switched to a duty officer, and his assigned areas alternated each day.

When he learned that the visitation officer's job was open, he jumped at the chance.

He was attracted to the schedule. Most days he works from 1 to 9 p.m., which allows him mornings with his family.

For the most part, Cabrera said, he enjoys his job. He said the good feeling he gets from helping people outweighs any abuse he has to take.

"If I can make it a little easier for some of these families," he said, "it makes my job worthwhile."