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County jail's warden replaced

(ran North, South editions of PASCO TIMES)

A changing of the guard took place Tuesday at the top level of the Hernando County Jail. Arvil "Butch" Chapman was replaced as warden by Don Stewart, whom Corrections Corporation of America executives called the "most experienced warden in the CCA system."

The announcement came on the day that eight CCA executives were brought before the County Commission to explain their plans for righting the troubled jail.

"The best situation for Hernando County is a management change," said executive vice president Ken Bouldin, "but that's also the best thing for Butch and his family. We recognize his contribution but realize that the realistic thing is to make a management change."

Chapman was brought to Hernando in June with the promise that he would clean up the problems at the jail. But things continued to worsen.

Since Nov. 2, three inmates have committed suicide, two were mistakenly transferred or released, and one escaped. Guards failed to check on two of the three men who killed themselves and last week, a guard was arrested after being accused of stealing hundreds of dollars from inmates.

Add to that about 758 Hernando arrests not entered in the statewide fingerprint database, a score of 72 percent on an internal audit in August and the fact that the jail relies more heavily on uncertified guards than any facility in the region.

But in Tuesday's presentation to commissioners, CCA executives promised to turn the jail into a model facility.

"I want to say that actions speak louder than words and there will be no (more) suicides on my watch," promised Melody Turner, the managing director who oversees the Hernando Jail and others in Florida.

Beyond promises, CCA recommended specific changes for the operation of the jail:

A suicide prevention task force will be unveiled today. Hernando is slated to be the pilot institution for this companywide program.

+ An increase in the number and salary of certified corrections officers. At last count, only 56 out of 109 officers had been certified in Florida. Their starting salaries will be raised from $28,000 to $32,000 per year. CCA is advertising for 25 certified officers to work part time at the jail.

+ A new tool carried by guards to electronically register every time they check a cell.

+ Inmate uniforms and identification will be color coded so that different categories of inmates will be immediately distinguishable.

County commissioners said the proposals were good, but some worried that so much had to go wrong before such remedies were proposed.

"That's management's responsibility," said Commissioner Nancy Robinson. "It shouldn't take this to get a management change."

Commissioner Chris Kingsley said after the meeting that he was concerned the problems at the Hernando Jail had been ignored for so long because the facility, which has been in the CCA family since 1988, was seen as a stepchild.

The County Commission also approved staff recommendations to turn over fingerprinting and photographing of inmates to the Sheriff's Office at a cost of $305,000, to appoint a contract monitor devoted exclusively to the jail, and to add a multiplier to the fines charged against the jail. Repeated slip-ups could increase the penalty five-fold.

But the big announcement of the day involved Chapman, 41, who had been brought to Hernando this past summer to right the ship.

Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden told the meeting that Chapman had been put in a very difficult position by CCA.

"It was almost like Butch came in here as the Titanic was crashing into the iceberg and someone said, "Here, take over the ship.' "

Throughout the foulups at the jail, CCA executives said they were completely confident in Chapman.

On Jan. 24, Chapman even dismissed the idea that he might resign.

"Absolutely not. I don't think that's an appropriate question," he told the Times.

Standing in the jail's parking lot Tuesday during a break, Chapman declined to comment on his departure.

The company has promised to put Chapman in a leadership role at a different facility, but has not decided which one.

Rowden said Chapman is going to be given a few weeks to unwind and then will be transferred to Kentucky.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said after the meeting that he liked Chapman and thought he had been doing the best he could.

Getting replaced was "probably the best thing that ever happened to (Chapman)," Stabins said. "I think he obviously tried to do the job and he wasn't given as much assistance as he should have been."

The decision to replace Chapman was made last week and Stewart said he has known about it for "five or six days." He came down to Hernando on Saturday - the day after the inmate escape - to start looking for a house.

Not counting Hernando, in the past year, there have been only two wardens replaced at CCA's 63 jails and prisons nationwide, corporate spokesman Steven Owen said.

In that same period, the Hernando County Jail has experienced four different wardens.

Chapman arrived in June when warden Ellen Hawks was transferred because of some operational problems. But CCA had not consulted with the county and then-County Administrator Gary Adams objected to Chapman's lack of experience running a municipal jail.

Thomas "Denny" Durbin was named warden in July and Chapman was kept on as an understudy with the idea of someday taking control of the facility.

But Durbin never moved to Hernando permanently. And the jail was effectively being run by Chapman.

On Nov. 10, Chapman was officially named to the position just a few days after the first suicide. And now, about three months later, his tenure is over.

Don Stewart, his replacement, has a reputation as a man who can clean up jails.

He has been warden at the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Okla. since May. But before that he was warden at the county jail in Tulsa, Okla., a facility of 1,700 beds and the largest privately owned jail in the country.

"He was our fifth warden here (since 1998) and he was without a doubt the best," said Tulsa County Administrator Paul Wilkening. "I think he's CCA's fix-it guy, and I think that's why you're getting him. This was a big facility and I think they needed someone who would run it with no chicanery."

The county jail in Tulsa has since been taken back by the Sheriff's Office.

Stewart addressed the commissioners at the meeting, promising to integrate the jail into the community.

"I've been to facilities that have had issues in the past, but I've been to good facilities, too," Stewart said.

Stewart began his career in 1983 as a guard with the Kentucky Department of Corrections and has worked his way up the ladder in public and private corrections.

Collecting guitars tops the list of his hobbies. He is very involved in the Southern Baptist church and in the lives of his two children, who are both in high school.

The first thing he plans to do with the jail's problems: "Put your eyes on it and think for yourself. Ask a lot of questions."

Despite the presentation, not everyone was convinced.

Former Hernando Sheriff Tom Mylander said CCA's sales pitch Tuesday sounded just like it did 19 years ago when the company first started talking about taking over the jail.

There was one real question, he said: "Will they follow through?"

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@spttmes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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