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Virginia Gardens

Virginia Gardens, county jail at odds over prisoner releases


Special to the Miami Herald

Good fences made good neighbors, until the county jail installed a gate and started releasing prisoners into one mayor’s backyard.

“They put a gate without a door where they release inmates, and now they are coming into our neighborhood at all hours,” Virginia Gardens Mayor Spencer Deno said. “We never agreed to that when the jail was built.”

Deno met with County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz and County Corrections Director Tim Ryan, on Aug. 13, to discuss the increase in “inmate release” traffic to his town.

“Director Ryan told me that he needed time to come up with some ideas and then run them by Pepe,” said Deno, who also pressed the county to live up to its end of a bargain that he says it made with his town back in the 1980s.

A Miami Herald story on Aug. 4 showed that the county, in a July 17 email response to a public-records request, wrote that an agreement related to building the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, located at 3594 NW 72nd Ave. — as the facility’s address was originally known — “does not exist.”

However, last week, village clerk Maritza Fernandez dug through some of the village’s archives and found dozens of pages of minutes, resolutions and lawsuit filings surrounding TGK — including an agreement between both sides on what was needed for the facility to be built. Copies of the records were forwarded through Commissioner Diaz’s office and then to the county attorney’s office for review.

“None of the pages reference any agreement or requested agreement to prohibit the release of inmates in Virginia Gardens,” wrote Assistant County Attorney David Sherman in an Aug. 7 email to Diaz. “The last three pages specifically delineate the terms of the settlement.”

The village settled a lawsuit against the county in 1986 with terms that included:

• the county paying for the village to hire extra police officers;

• giving $225,000 to public works;

• stipulations that TGK would not be used as a booking facility;

• and a rule that if a bus went there, it wasn’t allowed to stop between the jail and Le Jeune Road.

The final agreement, dated Aug. 21, 1986, shows that the county in the end only agreed to:

• pave Northwest 37th Street;

• and pay the village $109,206 over a three-year period.

If an inmate escaped, records show, and committed a felony within the town’s boundaries, up until August 1989, the county would be on the hook for an additional payment of $36,402. After that, the agreement would expire.

“The lack of reference to prohibition of the release of inmates in Virginia Gardens in all of the records attached strongly implies that there was no such agreement,” Sherman wrote.

Mayor Deno was a teenager when TGK was built but said he remembers his community opposing it. According to minutes from a 1986 village council meeting, nearly 250 residents from the village and nearby Miami Springs rallied outside the jail — as it was being built — wearing bright red ribbons and carrying signs that said “Stop the Jail.”

At that time, county jails were “full” with 3,200 prisoners, records show. A new jail, TGK, was expected to open by May 1988 and would consist of seven barracks-style dormitories and a security station.

It officially opened in 1989, and last June the jail was turned it into a “centralized intake center” after closing its intake center at the old Pre-Trial Detention Center, 1321 NW 13th St.

Since then, TGK has released nearly 5,000 inmates, of which 93 have had “a recorded address of homeless,” according to Janelle Hall, a corrections department spokesperson.

“We drive by the jail every morning and see young men with baggy pants and T-shirts just hanging out front,” said Virginia Howard, of Virginia Gardens, who called police last month when a disheveled man who had just left TGK sat on a neighbor’s lawn.

Deno has documented recent run-ins between police and TGK-related offenders that include car thefts, drugs and weapons arrests.

Mayor Deno added that releasing inmates “24/7” jeopardizes the safety of his community. “No one consulted us about this,” he said.

The county claims that its hands are tied under state law and that it must “release arrestees within six hours of posting bond or satisfying criminal charges,” according to an Aug. 9 email from the Corrections director’s office. To do otherwise would have “legal repercussions” for the county.

Meanwhile, Deno says the county is simply stonewalling.

“They are not being very neighborly,” Deno said.

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