Pinellas County sheriff calls for closure of Goodwill work-release facility

10:58 PM, Jun 27, 2013   |    comments
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Video: Gualtieri calls for closure of Largo work-release facility

Largo, Florida - Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called for the closure of a troubled and controversial work release program located in Largo on Thursday.

"Inmates meeting with people, doing hand to hand transactions, getting things from other people and they had things out there that were buried in the area," said the sheriff.

The discovery was made as part of a surveillance operation that took place June 3rd though 7th and then again on the 18th through the 23rd.

Goodwill is contracted by the Florida Department of Corrections to operate the low-level security operation, but under strict rules such as a curfew and a band on contraband, as a way for prisoners to transition back into society. 

In one instance that tweaked the sheriff, a prisoner escaped from the facility, but Goodwill never reported it to the sheriff's office.

"The reason why they didn't call the sheriff's office, and this really makes me upset and mad quite frankly, is that it's hit or miss as to whether a deputy will come out and respond. Well that's nonsense," said Gualtieri.

State Senator Jack Latvala, who represents the neighborhood were Goodwill operates, asked the sheriff to conduct the surveillance after receiving complaints from residents of the Embassy Mobile Home Park, which backs up to the Goodwill property.

"I don't want 180 criminals mingling around in the neighborhoods around that center they way they appear to be doing," said Sen. Latvala.

The senator said he asked Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday to look into whether Goodwill violated its contractual obligations by not informing authorities about the escape prisoner and other violations found by the sheriff's office surveillance operation.

The Department of Corrections just renewed its deal to operate the facility for five more years.

It released a statement to 10 News in reference to the sheriff's finding that reads... 

"The Department of Corrections is aware of the information from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Tactical Surveillance Unit and Violent Crimes Task Force outlining observed incidents at the Goodwill Industries-operated Largo work release center.  The safety of families in the area is our number priority.  We take this information extremely seriously and working to determine next steps."

The latest controversy comes several months after a Goodwill inmate was charged with killing two men.

Three months later, another inmate was charged with raping a 17 year-old Japanese exchange student in the area.

Residents who live at the Embassy Mobile Home Park say there has been an uptick in suspicious activity in their community and hope the lawmakers are successful in closing the work release program.

"This used to be a very trusting community, people no longer feel safe. I'm not comfortable here," said resident Dr. Sandy Meiers.

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