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Jail drops perk for more room

Hernando County Jail officials are taking steps to free up space for attorney-client meetings. But the move comes mostly at the expense of trusties, a small group of inmates who have more privileges and responsibilities than other inmates.

Starting in February, trusties will no longer receive "contact" visits from relatives behind the facility's walls. The elimination of the perk will free up two rooms that can be used for attorney-client consultations.

The move highlights the urgency of a planned jail expansion.

"Quite frankly, we cannot get everybody in here on one day," warden Ellen Hawks said. "Those two rooms could be turned over to the attorneys. It was a perk (for the inmates), not a requirement."

On Jan. 11, the jail was reaccredited by the American Correction Association, although auditors found that the 15-year-old building had insufficient one-inmate cells, lacked space for inmates to spend outside cells and inadequate facilities for juvenile offenders. The facility's shortcomings were based on its antiquated design, jail officials said.

Given the recent increase in the county's population, officials from Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that operates the jail, have seen a dramatic rise in the number of inmates housed at the facility off Spring Hill Drive.

For years, most of the jail's inmates were actually in federal custody _ the U.S. Marshal's Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Recently, however, the federal population has been reduced to about 15 inmates to make room for those accused of crimes in Hernando County. Still, officials are struggling to find space for attorneys who need to consult with their clients.

"When we did not have all Hernando Countians, we did not have as many attorneys coming in," quality assurance manager Cathie Sullivan said. "Now that there are 350-plus inmates, we have to accommodate all those attorneys and public defenders. Right now, they don't have attorney-client privilege that is afforded to them."

As is, that has become a difficult enterprise. Currently, there are two rooms reserved for attorney-client conferences. Depending on their workload, lawyers and public defenders generally visit with their clients two or three days before a scheduled court hearing and could request to see 12 to 20 inmates in one visit.

However, when those rooms are filled, many of the meetings are held in holding cells or at the booking desk, a secured area inside the facility that is usually crowded with law enforcement officers finishing paperwork.

While the measure is intended to address concerns of overcrowding, it is also considered a temporary solution until construction begins on the 45,000-square-foot expansion of the jail. The $11-million project, expected to begin this year, will increase the jail's capacity from 302 to 542 beds, officials said.

"In the interim, it is all we can do," Sullivan said. "We are hoping that the additional room will ease backup and congestion. We have a full year to wait."

The new policy, which takes effect on Feb. 15, affects a relatively small number of inmates and about 15 trusties, who wear bright red shirts and blue pants to work on the jail's grounds and in the kitchen and laundry room.

In the meantime, jail officials are looking at alternative ways to accommodate trusties and other privileged inmates, such as granting extra recreation time.

Under the old policy, inmates who have been in custody at the jail for 60 days and have not been found guilty of any disciplinary infractions during their incarceration could receive contact visits from relatives. Inmates will still have the opportunity for visitation.

Sullivan, who is also the grievance officer, said she has not received much feedback about the new policy since the memo was released earlier this month.

"People have not complained about it yet," she said. "We have to do with the space that we have. We have a lot of customers to please."

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