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County to house inmates in tents

Getting thrown in jail used to at least guarantee three meals a day and a roof over your head.

Now the roof may be a military surplus tent, and you may have to pay for the food.

Many Florida counties are trying to make jail tougher on inmates and easier on taxpayers, and lawmakers gave them a free hand this year.

At 6 p.m. Friday, St. Lucie County will become the first in Florida to move some inmates into tents, an approach pioneered in Arizona.

And several county jails are charging for meals and medical care, led by officials like Marion County Sheriff Ken Ergle in Ocala, with this no-frills corrections philosophy:

"Taxpayers and innocent crime victims are more important than the prisoners in our county jails."

Inmates call the get-tough moves inhumane. "It used to be you could watch TV. Now this is Ergle's little personal torture chamber," said inmate Raymond Hill, incarcerated in Marion County Jail on an aggravated assault conviction.

That doesn't bother Ergle, or St. Lucie Sheriff Bobby Knowles, who got a unanimous vote of his county commission to add 50 beds to his 768-bed jail by using surplus military tents.

"We're getting back to the basics. I think people across this country want someone to pay for victimizing a citizen," said Knowles, billed as the nation's toughest sheriff earlier this month on CBS' "Eye on America."

For some St. Lucie prisoners, he said, "The punishment is they are going to live in a tent."

"They are going to work in black-and-white striped uniforms along roads and beaches, cleaning them up. They won't have television. They won't have air conditioning," said Knowles.

Sheriffs got more flexibility to try tents and meal charges after lawmakers decided earlier this year the state would not regulate county jails. A year before, the Legislature had passed tougher sentencing laws and reintroduced chain gangs in the 68,000-inmate state prison system.

"We no longer had the money to be inspecting (county) jails," said House Corrections Chairman Robert Sindler, D-Apopka. "We said let's just free ourselves of having rules and regulations we are not inspecting. It tripped us up and it tripped them up."

The 67 counties run 104 detention facilities that hold about 35,000 men, 4,300 women 1,000 juvenile males and 50 juvenile females. About 56 percent are awaiting trial.

Under the new legislation, which took effect July 1, the state Department of Corrections will stop inspecting county lockups.

Instead, the Florida Sheriffs Association will develop local jail rules, based on standards set by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, said Knowles, a past president of the sheriffs' group.

Sindler said there is "some potential for abuse" but said sheriffs will still answer for jail conditions.

"They're elected by the people," he said. "If they cost the county a lot of money in lawsuits they're going to have trouble getting re-elected."

The law also says jails can try to recoup meal and medical costs, which some counties in Florida and other states were already trying.

In Michigan, the Macomb County Jail has been able to collect an average of $3,245 a year per inmate in reimbursements for imprisonment costs, a House Corrections Committee analysis said.

In Marion, inmates are charged $1 a day for meals and a $10 co-payment if they want to see a doctor. So far, the 1,100-inmate jail is collecting $11,692 a month for food and $1,500 a month in medical co-payments, said Sheriff's Office Lt. Joe Cobb.

The charges come out of inmates' accounts, which hold money they have when arrested and money that friends or relatives send. Prisoners who do not have money get the food or medical care anyway.

But if relatives or friends later put money in their account, the charges are deducted then. And if inmates leave owing money and are later arrested with money in their pockets, the charges are deducted from that.

Inmates say they do not get their dollar's worth. "The food they feed us is not enough for elementary school kids. We're hungry," said Alan Arnold.

Arnold, jailed for fleeing and eluding arrest, was one of several prisoners who crowded to a phone last week when Cobb agreed to let inmates at the Marion jail comment to The Associated Press.

"It will be cabbage with little chunks of meat mixed up in it, and maybe some greens and cornbread. If they give you anything to drink there's no ice in it. It's just lukewarm juice or warm tea," said Gary Hicks, who is awaiting transfer to a state prison on an aggravated assault conviction.

Raymond Hill said his weight has dropped from 245 to 220 pounds in the year he has been in the jail. "It's sorry meat. You're scared to eat it," he said.

"This sheriff here has got this jail where you get nothing. It's cruel and unusual punishment. It really is," said Earl Carnley, convicted of aggravated assault and eluding pursuit.

But Ergle said the jail is nationally accredited and serves "three well-balanced, nutrition-certified meals a day."

"We are a first-class operation. You can eat food off the floor it's so clean. But make no mistake about it, it's a jail," said Ergle, who took out televisions in 1993.

"Of course the prisoners in jail don't like it, but I don't know if they'd like it if they were put in a Hilton either."

The Florida Sheriffs Association hasn't polled counties to see how many have started charging for meals, but spokesman Tom Berlinger said there are already at least five: Leon, Manatee, Marion, Pasco and St. Lucie.