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Ongoing problems plague Goodwill work release centers

Inmates at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, run by Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, congregate in an outdoor courtyard.
Inmates at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, run by Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, congregate in an outdoor courtyard.
Published Jun. 22, 2013

Five years ago, Goodwill put out a nationwide call to action.

With the U.S. prison population rising, Goodwill's headquarters told chapters they were "uniquely positioned to be a leader" in reintegrating ex-prisoners into mainstream society.

St. Petersburg-based Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, best known for thrift stores and job training, had already seized on the idea. It was serving hundreds of people in its prison-related programs, funding the work with lucrative government contracts. From 2001 to 2012, its corrections revenue jumped 148 percent, from $3.9 million to $9.6 million.

Last year, Goodwill made shocking headlines when one of its inmates escaped from a Largo work release facility and murdered two men and another inmate raped a teenager on her way to school.

But a Tampa Bay Times investigation shows that the organization's work release centers in Pinellas were rife with problems long before that.

Hundreds of pages of state records, inspection reports, personnel files and interviews with former Goodwill employees show:

• Inmates regularly signed out of the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, a converted motel on U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, to go to work but never actually went. State auditors as recently as January said Goodwill "continues to be inconsistent and noncompliant" in checking to see if inmates are at their jobs as required.

• Sexual activity by inmates — sometimes with work release staff — is a recurrent problem. In two cases, women housed at Goodwill's St. Petersburg work release center got pregnant while they were working off-site.

• For years, Largo residents complained about inmates jumping over fences to leave the facility and roaming through the neighborhood without supervision.

• Goodwill has a poor track record of helping inmates with substance abuse problems. Investigators found that 47 percent of Largo inmates with such problems in fiscal 2011-12 — 107 out of 230 — were released without getting any treatment.

• Just two months ago, the manager of the Largo center was placed on administrative probation for leaving the center unsupervised and failing to discipline a prisoner who had been caught stealing.

After the murders and the rape, the Legislature mandated stricter security and staff changes at all privately run work release centers and set aside money for ankle monitoring to better track inmates. Goodwill also was ordered to downsize the Largo center.

Many who saw the Goodwill operation up close said those changes are years overdue.

"There was never a systematic effort to run things right," said Fordham Hutton, a former Goodwill employee who was in charge of making sure the nonprofit was in compliance with its state contract.

"I'm not saying that no one was helped. They were. There was a couple inmates," said Hutton, who worked for the nonprofit from 2009-11. "But, there's much more other things going on that detract from that."

The rise

Goodwill officials declined to answer questions about their corrections programs. However, because they have a state contract, some personnel records are public information.

The records of one employee, in particular, help tell the story of Goodwill's expansion into the corrections business.

Paul Norris had stints as a tennis instructor and a wine and cheese shop owner before he took a $5-an-hour front-line job with the nonprofit in 1985.

Norris quickly caught the eye of his supervisors, and within a year was helping to develop new work release projects. Goodwill had run small corrections programs locally since the 1960s. It also operates a federal work release program in Hillsborough County.

Norris added various substance abuse, drug court, juvenile and probation programs, plus a gardening program that provides vegetables to needy people.

His files are filled with praise.

The yardstick by which Goodwill measured him? How large and profitable he could make the corrections division. His work was part of the nonprofit's effort "to seek other correctional programs in an effort to diversify revenue streams."

Norris declined comment through a Goodwill spokeswoman.

In 2008, Goodwill opened the big Largo work release center under a five-year state contract worth $2.9 million. Three years later, Norris' supervisors exulted, "the corrections department realized a gain of $970,461 during this past economically challenging year — a record positive contribution in the past 11 years."

The surplus grew even more in 2012, topping $1 million, though Goodwill uses the term "contribution."

In September of that year, one Largo inmate escaped and murdered two men. Three months later, another inmate raped a foreign exchange student on her way to school.

By April, state legislators responded with new rules to tighten security at work release centers, specifically targeted at Goodwill's Largo center by limiting the size of such facilities to 200. Largo had housed up to 300 inmates.

"I think part of their issue is they've got too many people to keep track of there," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who pushed the proposal.

But while the Legislature was mandating reductions, Goodwill was still thinking of growth. During the same month, Goodwill chief executive officer Debbie Passerini announced Norris had been promoted to vice president in charge of corrections and housing programs.

"I have no doubt that Paul will continue to grow the services Goodwill provides and seek even more ways to enhance the success of the people we serve," she wrote.

Lacking authority

Former workers — called "correction techs" by Goodwill — described a facility largely out of control.

Thomas Abba, 59, of Hudson, got a job at the Largo center in August, a couple of months before the murders.

"I thought it would be just supervising a bunch of guys," said Abba, who said his training consisted of watching a video and shadowing other workers. "Maybe I was a little naive. It's just a lot more stress than I was hoping for."

Abba said inmates — all felons who were coming off state prison time — knew how to manipulate staffers to circumvent the rules.

"(Inmates) knew we just didn't have the authority, and acted accordingly," Abba said.

Turnover was a constant problem. Poorly trained staffers "routinely falsified" records required by the state contract to make the center look better, Hutton said. Contraband — especially drugs and cellphones — was hard to keep out.

Hutton, 56, of Valrico said his bosses at Goodwill weren't overly concerned about how the center ran at the ground level. Upper management was loath to report anything to the state that would jeopardize the contract, he said.

And they wanted to spend as little as possible.

Instead of stocking enough handcuffs and leg irons at each of its work release centers, Hutton said, Goodwill would shuffle the equipment between the Largo and St. Petersburg centers for state inspections that occurred every six months.

Even though Goodwill met the state standard of one worker per 50 inmates, Hutton felt they needed more. He said regular room checks became nearly impossible when people were out sick or quit suddenly.

"I guess I was kind of seen as a boat rocker. Because I would say, 'wait a minute, this doesn't pass the smell test,' " said Hutton, who added Norris laid him off in 2011. "If you could write a story on how not to run a facility, this would be the poster child. … They want a $25-an-hour result with a $10-an-hour workforce."

Bad behavior

State investigative records from as far back as 2008 show problems at Goodwill's two Pinellas work release centers.

For example, four inmates regularly signed out of the Largo center to work at Checkers on 49th Street. They didn't always go. Goodwill is supposed to check on workers during each shift.

Just this spring, the woman who was in charge of the Largo center was faulted for "totally unacceptable behavior" and "poor judgment" for leaving the Largo center without supervision for part of a day. Cerise Conner, the manager Goodwill put on administrative probation, also was criticized for ignoring an order to send an inmate back to prison after he stole from the kitchen.

In at least two cases, inmates at the Suncoast Work Release center on Gandy Boulevard got pregnant and were sent back to prison.

One of the women said she had sex with a man several times in Goodwill's cafeteria, which is in the same Gandy Boulevard complex as Goodwill's center for female inmates. She said she also had sex with him at a downtown St. Petersburg hotel where she worked. The other woman said she got pregnant by a man who worked next door to her private work release job, but she refused to name him.

Records show sexual or personal relationships between Goodwill staff and inmates were an ongoing concern.

In fact, Paul Norris sounded the alarm in 2011 by complaining that two of his female employees possibly were engaging "in sexual activity with multiple inmates at Largo Residential Re-entry facility," according to reports.

The investigation was stopped when one of the women, the center's assistant director, resigned.

No one interviewed the other woman, who was a case manager.

Other cases were substantiated.

A Largo shift supervisor watching surveillance video in 2009 saw a female cook and an inmate having sex on a table in the kitchen. The cook was fired; the inmate was sent back to prison

In April 2010, an assistant shift supervisor resigned under investigation after he was found with a female inmate at a Best Western hotel.

Another time, an employee of the Largo center followed a fellow worker to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where she saw the female worker kissing a male inmate inside a Goodwill van. He also was talking on a cellphone, which is prohibited. She was fired; he was sent back to prison.

Gone for 53 minutes

On Sept. 30, the day Michael Scott Norris killed two men, he walked out of the Largo center several hours before he was due at work.

Dustin Kennedy was gone from the center for 53 minutes the December morning he raped a teenager on her way to school. Kennedy left the center at 6:03 a.m. — nearly an hour before his employer, Ameripride, a lawn and pest service, opened for business.

Ameripride is on the west side of U.S. 19, the same side as the work release center. The attack happened on the east side of the highway.

Prosecutors said Kennedy choked the student until blood vessels burst in her face and eyes and she passed out. He left her unconscious in a ditch.

Later, after Kennedy was arrested, the state complained Goodwill wasn't forthcoming about the incident — even though detectives had come to the center weeks earlier to investigate.

Kennedy pleaded guilty earlier this month and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Michael Scott Norris pleaded guilty in February and was sentenced to life in prison.

Why did Kennedy get out of the Largo center at 6:03, nearly an hour early? Goodwill did not provide a response. A state corrections spokeswoman said he was allowed to report in at 6:15 a.m. to see if work was available.

But during the investigation, an Ameripride manager told detectives Kennedy was not scheduled to work that day and that "employees are not permitted to be on the property until 0700 hours."

The manager said workers had previously been allowed to come by at 6 a.m., but that changed in winter as sunrises came later. The manager told detectives, "Goodwill may not realize that the time changed to an hour later."

State oversight

Days after Kennedy's arrest, state investigators made a surprise inspection.

They found Goodwill's record-keeping rudimentary. They said Goodwill didn't have a method for assessing inmates' treatment needs or addressing them.

"The staff does not view the inmate's needs in a holistic comprehensive manner," auditors wrote. "As reported by Largo staff, this contributes to inmate manipulation, staff splitting and ineffective case management."

The issues were no surprise. State officials had periodically cited Goodwill for not keeping up with required job checks, and investigated various allegations of lax supervision, even as the nonprofit was given positive overall reviews.

In 2011, state auditors found the Largo work release center was complying with all aspects of its contract.

Beginning July 1, because of the new state rules, Goodwill and other private work release centers must have at least one certified corrections officer at all times.

The state also must begin putting ankle monitors on inmates, beginning with a pilot program next month.

Latvala said the Largo center has already reduced its population to below 200 inmates. He also said 80 inmates there have been given ankle monitors, which will send an alarm if they stray too far into nearby neighborhoods.

He and Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, have attended several meetings with residents near the Largo center and vowed not to drop the issue.

But many feel Goodwill has violated the public's trust.

"DOC is partly to blame," said Abba, the former worker. "They're the overseers."

"My concern is that Goodwill has been putting things under the rug, and are they going to be reporting the things they need to?" said Rebecca Roberts, who lives near the Largo center. "They've had five years."

The state recently decided Goodwill should get five more.

On May 31, Goodwill signed a deal to continue its contract to run the Largo center until 2018.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.