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Amicable venting of criticisms

Here's an understatement: The Hernando County Jail was a topic of conversation Tuesday afternoon at the County Commission meeting. And here's another: The folks who call the shots in these parts have some questions about the way in which the jail has been run of late.

Commissioners said some things.

Citizens said some things.

Things were most certainly said.

The troubled jail has been in the news for months, of course, but this was the first out-and-out addressing of the facility's problems in a public forum. There was no shouting, though. No rants and no fisticuffs.

There is a new warden. Arvil "Butch" Chapman is out. Don Stewart from Oklahoma is in. Corrections Corporation of America, meanwhile, the private, Tennessee company that has run the Hernando jail since 1988, got to keep its contract with the county.

Tuesday, though, turned mostly into one big two-hour sorry-saying session.

"Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa," local political activist Janey Baldwin said during public comments.

CCA executive vice president Ken Bouldin called what's been going on at the Hernando jail "unacceptable."

"We need to do what is right," vice president of operations Jimmy Turner said.

"We have a plan," he said.

"The only way to go is up," County Commissioner Nancy Robinson said.

The vibes at the meeting were largely good. At least for now.

Remember, though: An investigation into the jail by the State Attorney's Office continues. That wasn't mentioned Tuesday.

The three suicides in as many months got the biggest, boldest headlines, but the Hernando jail has been reeling for longer than that because of a wide range of issues.

"Corrections and jails is not a nice business to be in," said Jim Gantt, the county's purchasing director and its CCA liaison, not quite a week after the suicide in the first week of November.

"Stuff happens," Gantt told the Times.

Since then, stuff has most definitely happened - a litany of it, in fact, from operation breakdowns to clerical mess-ups to shoddy auditing and inmates being released when they shouldn't have been or transferred to the wrong places at the wrong times. One inmate escaped last Friday by walking through an open door after an officer forgot to lock it.

Daniel Warren, 39, of Brooksville hanged himself in the jail on Nov. 2.

Geoffrey M. Conley, 21, of Hudson hanged himself there on Jan. 5.

Truoc Tran, 33, of St. Petersburg did the same on Jan. 27.

County Commissioner Jeff Stabins called it "an absolute mess."

Longtime Brooksville lawyer Jimmy Brown called it "a systematic failure."

On Tuesday, eight people in suits and ties from CCA sat near the front of the big room in the government center where the county commissioners meet, under the bright neon lights in the panels on the ceiling. There was a row of TV cameras off to the right. The crowd in the room included Sheriff Richard Nugent and the mother of Daniel Warren's child.

Turner, the CCA vice president of operations, introduced Stewart, the new warden from a facility near Tulsa as "a fine man" with "a fine family."

Stewart said he was "blessed" to be here in Hernando County.

The plan CCA laid out in a PowerPoint presentation included security improvements, salary increases, more and better training, computer chips that monitor officers' checks, a rejiggered system of color-coded jail jumpsuits and a more effective suicide watch.

Robinson, the commissioner, told the folks from CCA it shouldn't have taken all this to get their attention. The suicides. The overly loose handling of inmates. The almost daily public egg on the face. But, she added, "you've done everything to turn this around."

None of what happened or was said on Tuesday, of course, changes the fact that the State Attorney's Office is looking into the facility's recent history of wrongdoing, and will continue to do that. Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto said Tuesday afternoon he had met with State Attorney Brad King and that they have "plotted a course."

"We're continuing to review the material we already have," Catto said from his office in Inverness. "We plan to make some sort of conclusion. . . . Within the next couple of weeks, we want to be able to say, "This is where we're going with this.' "

Some citizens got up at the end of Tuesday's meeting and said what they had to say.

"Technology," said Thomas Mylander, the former Hernando sheriff, referring to the new computerized officer-tracking system, "is only as good as the people you've got working that equipment."

Another understatement.

"It doesn't replace the fact that you have to actually look in the room and see if the person's actually breathing or not," private investigator Peter Thompson said.

And another.

"Words are words," CCA managing director Melody Turner said. "But actions speak louder."

"The performance will be our credentials," Bouldin said.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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