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U.S. Rep Rich Nugent put his arm around Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis as the men walked down a hallway of the Hernando County Detention Center.

"This place looks 100 percent better," said Nugent, who led the Sheriff's Office when the agency took over operation of the jail from a private company in August 2010.

Back then, the jail was in serious disrepair, the medical unit was undersized, and a standalone medical facility was still an idea. On Tuesday morning, Nugent helped Nienhuis cut a green ribbon across the door of a new $1.5 million medical building.

When it opens in two or three weeks, the one-story structure will add much-needed beds and bring the jail's medical care into the modern era, Nienhuis and his staff told a group of reporters, county commissioners and other local officials.

The jail's existing medical unit has just nine cells, one of them without plumbing. The unit is on the second floor of the detention center, making access a problem.

The new building features separate units for men and women and a total of 36 beds. There are two treatment rooms and two specially vented isolation cells to keep airborne diseases from spreading.

Another feature the existing unit lacks: a low-impact, padded cell to prevent inmates from injuring themselves.

The design of the extra space will allow staffers to easily monitor inmates suffering from drug and alcohol symptoms or mental health issues, said medical director Kristine DeKany.

About a third of the jail population is taking prescribed psychotropic medication, she said.

DeKany worked with Clemons Rutherford & Associates, the Tallahassee firm that drew up the plans for the new building. The contractor, Allstate Construction Inc. of Tampa, finished the project within its budget and just a bit later than planned. The cost for the infirmary was paid out of the $3 million the County Commission set aside for repairs when the sheriff took over operation of the jail.

Beyond its operational advantages, county officials are hoping the new unit pays dividends by helping to lure federal agencies that pay to house detainees.

Hernando County once had contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which paid the county to house people picked up on warrants or detained while their citizenship status was checked. The payments covered the cost to house those people and also included a built-in profit margin that went into the county's general fund.

The federal detainees were moved in November 2009 to a new facility built for them in Baker County near Jacksonville to be closer to immigration offices and federal courts. But the agencies still contract with local jails throughout the state, and Hernando is close to the federal courthouse in Tampa. The lack of a proper medical unit, however, has been a hurdle.

Nienhuis said he and his staff have already met with representatives from two federal agencies to show them the new building.

"They came with negative attitude and when they left they had a positive one," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.