LARGO, Fla. (AP) - Citing a "real and immediate threat to public safety," the Department of Corrections closed the state's largest work release center for inmates on Friday.
The inmates were moved out of the Largo Center run by Goodwill Industries at 4 a.m., the department said.
The closing came after an investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and after stories written by the Tampa Bay Times. The newspaper reported (http://bit.ly/15N0ucu) about a pattern of lax supervision at the center and that violent inmates were often housed there and at other state work release facilities.
Officials said an inmate escaped and killed two men in St. Petersburg in September. Less than three months later, another inmate raped a 17-year-old Japanese exchange student near the center. That inmate had left for work nearly an hour before his shift began at a business just a five-minute walk away.
After the Times published a story in February, the state stopped allowing convicted murderers into the program. A recent story detailed more problems, including lax discipline, improper sexual activity by inmates and Goodwill's failure to verify inmates were working.
In an email sent to the media on Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said that his agency has terminated its contract with Goodwill.
"This is not the first time that violations of Department policy have taken place at Largo," Crews wrote. "And these repeated deficiencies constitute a real and immediate threat to public safety."
There have been several violations at the center, including inaccurate inmate counts. Also, an escaped inmate was undetected for more than three hours.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent deputies to observe the center for 11 days earlier this month after repeated complaints from nearby residents, who were concerned about inmates walking to and from the center.
Gualtieri found several issues during his investigation, including how inmates stashed banned items such as lighters and mobile phones in bushes or other hiding places before returning to or leaving the facility. Investigators also saw inmates go to nearby motels known for drug activity.
In one case that Gualtieri said particularly galled him, a detective was approached by a Goodwill employee who said the detective's undercover car matched the description of a vehicle used to help an inmate escape the previous night. Yet Goodwill had not reported the escape to authorities, as required by its contract with the state.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)