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New jail warden has a reputation as Mr. Fix-it

The man who's taking over as warden at the troubled Hernando County Jail has done this before.

Don Stewart, 46, is a big man with high and tight hair, a Southern Baptist, a husband of almost 19 years and the father of two teenage girls. He's worked for more than 20 years in corrections, from Kentucky to Oklahoma. He's a biology major who once wanted to be a veterinarian who's brought a personal touch to this more typically hard-lined business, including even a Super Bowl party one year in a New Mexico prison.

And he's beginning to get a rep: Don Stewart, roving warden, solver of problems, fixer of facilities.

His new task might be his toughest. But in his own unassuming, aw-shucks sort of way, this is what he had to say on Wednesday:

Bring it on.

"I love a challenge," Stewart said over breakfast at Nellie's in Weeki Wachee. "There are people who just want everything smooth - "Don't put anything in front of me, and I'll be happy.' That's not me."

He took over in January 2002, after all, at Tulsa's David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center - with anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 inmates on any given day, the largest privately run jail in the nation - after it had problems with escapes, incorrect releases, and low morale and high turnover among employees.

"The serious complaints ceased within a month," County Commissioner Bob Dick told the Tulsa World.

"He was the best warden they had," Tulsa County Administrator Paul Wilkening told the Times on Tuesday.

Then he took over last May at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Okla., after an inmate was killed in a racially motivated, gang-related brawl last March.

Neither of those facilities were doing the sheer number of things that make for the kinds of consistent and consistently damning headlines Hernando's jail has been generating of late: the three suicides in three months, the fingerprinting and mug shot backlogs, inmates escaping or getting released or transferred when they shouldn't be. But the headlines in both those places mostly ended when Stewart came on. At least the worst of them.

"If you've got problems," Tulsa undersheriff Brian Edwards said, "he'd be a good guy to call."

"The first thing I have to do," Stewart said Wednesday, "is personally put my own eyes on everything that we do and make an assessment of where I think we are."

Then?

Start to change what needs to be changed.

And start that by involving others.

"Step 1 is to embrace the staff and get them involved in that process," he said. "Together, let's come up with a plan to go from Point A to Point B. Any leader who thinks he can sit in an office and do this by himself is going to fail.

"We're going to figure out what changes need to be made and very methodically make those changes. Are we going to make those changes overnight? No."

Here, then, is a first-glance snapshot of Stewart:

His father was in the Army, so he was born in Lexington, Ky., but grew up everywhere from Kansas to Germany and Iowa to Virginia, Maryland and Oklahoma. He went to school at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., reads historical novels and likes to play golf. "I can hit the ball a long way," he said Wednesday. "I just can't tell you where it's going to go."

Kind of like his resume: Stewart started as a corrections officer in Kentucky in 1983, and since then he's been a warden at facilities in Beattyville, Ky.; Diboll, Texas; Louisville, Ky.; Alamo, Ga.; Estancia, N.M., and Nashville.

In 1997, he joined Corrections Corporation of America, the private company based in Nashville that runs 63 facilities in 19 states and Washington, D.C., including the Tulsa jail when Stewart was there, the Cimarron prison and the beige-block building at 16425 Spring Hill Drive, south of Brooksville.

In 2001, at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, Stewart had a Super Bowl party for inmates at which staff volunteers handed out packages with pizza, candy and soda. He also put TVs in cells as an incentive for good behavior.

Stewart praises his people.

And people praise him.

Officials at CCA, of course, have good things to say.

"He's an experienced and capable warden and well respected by his peers," corporate spokesman Steven Owen said. "Everyone I've ever talked to who's worked for him or with him says great things about his management style."

But probably more telling is this: Folks in Oklahoma also have good things to say.

Susan Savage is the Oklahoma secretary of state. She was the mayor of Tulsa when Stewart arrived there in 2002.

"He inspired some real confidence and seemed to know his stuff and not play games," Savage said Wednesday afternoon from her office in Oklahoma City. "Real direct. Which I liked. A lot."

"He's not afraid to walk around and talk to the staff. He doesn't take a stay-in-the-office approach," said Dennis Cunningham, the administrator for the Private Prison Administration, a division of Oklahoma's Department of Corrections. "He doesn't look for ways to disguise or minimize a problem. He tries to get to the bottom of it."

"He operated by consensus and common sense," Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith said. "He was always very eager to help and to listen to every question or concern."

Some in Hernando are more skeptical.

"He's okay," Sheriff Richard Nugent said after Tuesday's County Commission meeting at which CCA introduced Stewart as the new warden.

"The proof's in the pudding," Nugent added.

Commissioner Chris Kingsley told Stewart during the meeting that normally people around here would be greeting him with "more warmth and tenderness."

But the jail has been a constant source of headlines and headaches over the last six or so months. Commissioners have called it everything from "a nightmare" to "an absolute mess" to "really, really sad." Lawyers, former corrections officers and inmates who have called the Times have been even less kind.

The root, some say, is low salaries, insufficient training and that the Hernando County Jail relies more heavily on uncertified officers than any other facility in the region.

"I believe I can teach just about anybody the basics of corrections," Stewart said Wednesday.

"I think there's a good nucleus of people here. My job is to elevate them in every area. . . . The best way I know is to walk out on the floor, be side by side with your staff . . . and then you go back and do it over and over and over again."

Stewart said he got the call from CCA vice president of operations Jimmy Turner last Monday. "Mr. Turner called and said, "Don, I have something I need you to go take care of,' " Stewart said. He arrived here Saturday with his wife, Janie, to go house-hunting, and CCA executive vice president Ken Bouldin introduced him at Tuesday's meeting.

"My name is Don, D-O-N, Stewart, S-T-E-W-A-R-T," he told the county commissioners. "We think we have been blessed by the opportunity to come here." He spent time after the meeting shaking the hands of the commissioners. He then went over and took his first tour of the jail and had a late Valentine's Day dinner with his wife at the Perkins on U.S. 19.

He said on Wednesday at breakfast at Nellie's that he felt comfortable here in Hernando. He said he felt welcome at the jail. He said he has a good feeling about this.

He made no guarantees.

"Can I promise you a perfect facility?" he said. "No."

But he did say this:

"I want to be right in the middle of what's going on, right in the midst of a situation. I love that. That energizes me. That motivates me. When someone tells me, "We have a need,' that gets my blood running.

"You always think the one in front of you is the biggest challenge," Stewart said heading into maybe his stiffest test yet. "Right now this is my only challenge. And it's the one I'm going to take on."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which includes information from the Tulsa World and the Albuquerque Journal. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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