Guards at the Miami-Dade County Jail would seem to have enough to think about, right?
After all, they are charged with watching over some of the area's most dangerous criminals, as well as more than 300 mentally ill inmates, in what amounts to one of the state's largest psychiatric units.
But for much of each work day, many guards admit, they are concerned less about murderers, rapists, thieves, and the mentally challenged in their keeping than they are about where their cars are parked.
They worry about parking tickets. About their cars being towed. About break-ins and theft. And late in the day, they worry about when to duck out for a half-hour to catch an unauthorized but department-run shuttle bus that ferries them to their remotely parked cars. Then the second-shift guards, who get off work at 11:00 p.m., can repark closer to the jail, saving themselves a long, possibly dangerous walk.
So worrisome is the lack of free or affordable parking near the Pre-Trial Detention Center at 1321 NW Thirteenth St. -- the main jail where all accused Miami-Dade criminals are booked -- that many of the most experienced Corrections and Rehabilitation Department officers refuse to work there. "We ought to have our best people here, but many transfer out of this job because they can't fight the parking," says Sgt. John Klein. "It's a big problem."
A fourteen-year veteran of corrections, Klein is a diminutive former army chaplain and ordained Episcopal priest who has made finding a solution to the parking crisis at the jail and the adjacent county courthouse his personal crusade. His little blue 1995 Geo Metro is a wheeled repository of parking shortage documentation, crammed with cartons of neat color-coded files, the evidence of what Klein calls the failure over the years of county officials and corrections department supervisors to deal with the problem.
In fact John Klein has compiled an annotated, 40-year history of parking in the vicinity of the jail. "In 1961 Dade County had a spacious, centralized criminal justice area," he writes. "There were 104 parking spaces on the jail premises. In the lot west of the Justice Building there were 339 spaces, more than ample for all employees."
Now: "Corrections has 360 employees in the area on the day shift, and the parking spaces have been reduced to 47."
"It's mismanagement," insists Klein, slight, bald, and 69 years old. "Budget constraints over the years have led to compromises, and now corrections is not held accountable."
Parking in the bustling Civic Center area -- which includes the main criminal courts building, the county State Attorney's Office, and Jackson Memorial Hospital as well as the jail -- has long been a nightmare. According to Klein, more than 2300 people work for the criminal justice system in the area and daily fight for 191 designated spaces.
Visitors to the courts or the jail usually pay up to $9.50 a day to park in a public lot run by the City of Miami. Some public lots offer jurors a special low rate. And some county employees do pay for parking. Corrections Ofcr. Osvaldo Luaces, for example, says he shells out $37 a month for a pass permitting him to park at a metered space on the street, if he can find one.
But many corrections guards argue that they should not have to pay or hunt for parking, especially since parking at the other six corrections facilities is free.
The notion that the quotidian act of parking has ballooned into a danger to public safety seems absurd. But that's exactly what's happened, insist Klein and many other officers. "People are distracted and preoccupied," says Klein. "Our minds are often on other stuff when it should be on the job at hand."
Indeed at least one recent prisoner escape and the gunshot wounding of a corrections officer outside the jail three years ago can be linked to the parking crisis. Francisco Perez, a 44-year-old charged with drug possession, disappeared from the courthouse in July; the guard assigned to him left the building after shuttle-bus driver Yvonne Guerra notified him his car had a flat tire.
Corrections director Lois Spears laughed out loud last week when asked if the parking problem -- which she admitted is an intractable dilemma and a distraction -- was responsible for Perez's disappearance. She says it was not. But she said she had no details of the incident, which is under investigation by Internal Affairs. And Perez, charged with two counts of buying heroin and resisting arrest, is still missing.
But it is clear that a lack of adequate, secure parking led to the wounding of Ofcr. Kimberly Richardson. She was working the midnight shift and had left the jail to retrieve some papers from her car, parked on the street, when a crazed suicidal man on a murder spree opened fire, hitting her with a bullet to the abdomen and two in the hand.
"If we had secured parking, it never would have happened," charges Richardson, who has been on medical leave ever since the December 26, 1999, incident.
Ironically Spears is the corrections official who set up the shuttle service eight years ago, when she was the department's assistant director. The service, for corrections employees only, operates from 5:30 a.m. until about 7:00 p.m. The drivers are armed and uniformed officers who use two twelve-passenger corrections department vans to haul officers between the jail and their cars, parked on vacant lots blocks away. Personnel are afraid to walk, because of heavy crime in the area, and a certain joy the bad guys have in hassling cops.
Oddly enough, the four shuttle-bus drivers are drawn from the most senior corrections officers -- the ones who might be most needed supervising prisoners in the overcrowded jail. But despite their training, experience, and pay -- an average of $22 an hour -- these officers only occasionally go inside the jail or have any contact with prisoners.
"I enjoy the fact that I have little contact with co-workers or inmates," admits Guerra, an army veteran, who is 38 years old and got her plum assignment a year and a half ago. "Driving is a lot less stress. But I would gladly give it up if they would find us some parking!"
According to Klein, running the shuttle costs the county $350,000 a year. Included in that figure are his calculations of the expenses of gas, vehicle depreciation, and officers' salaries. Spears says that number is way too high. Her figure: $249,522.
For years the shuttle ran between the jail and an overflow parking lot at the women's detention center at 1401 NW 7th Avenue. But that came to a fiery end on October 3 when the driver of an eighteen-wheel fuel tanker lost control on an Interstate 95 flyover near downtown and the loaded truck flipped over the guardrail, dropped onto the parking lot, and exploded like a bomb. The driver was killed, more than two dozen corrections vehicles were destroyed, and reconstruction of the street and parking lot is still going on.
For six weeks the shuttle ran a half-mile route between the jail and the parking lot at the Winn-Dixie Marketplace at 1155 NW 11th Street, where up to 200 employees a day parked. But anticipating the crush of holiday shoppers, Winn-Dixie management told the jail guards to clear out.
On Monday, space for 50 cars was found on a vacant lot west of the women's jail, although, says corrections spokeswoman Janelle Hall, the department is still scrambling to find more space.
There is some good news, however. Beginning Monday, those officers who do ride the shuttle are traveling in style -- in a brand-new 23-passenger Bluebird limousine for which corrections paid $93,397.65. And where did the money come from? From the department's budget, says Hall. One of the old vans is still used as back-up, she adds.
Despite approving the purchase of the Bluebird limo, Spears, who is set to retire next June after 27 years on the job, emphasizes that officers are responsible for finding a place to park and getting to work on time. She also says she was unaware that officers assigned to drive the shuttle on the day shift performed that duty for the entire day, and had no other job assignment.
"It is not an optimum situation," allows Spears of the parking hassles. But she adds that the Metrorail's Civic Center stop is just around the corner, county buses run to the area, and public transportation is free for officers in uniform. "Paying for parking is also an alternative," she says.
As for Klein, Spears has recently canceled two command staff meetings scheduled with the parking nudnik. "He has some ideas he needs to take downtown," sighs Spears. "He wants people to give up their own money to build a parking garage."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Last week, Klein says, he got a word with assistant county manager Sam Williams, Spears's boss, who promised to reschedule a command staff meeting in December to discuss parking.
Klein admits he's something of a pest over his pet issue. "I am not trying to embarrass management," insists Klein. "But for people to constantly go out of the jail to move their cars or feed meters is unhealthy. People ask me, 'Is it worth the time and effort to do this?' If you ask the line officers, they say it's the number-one thing that needs to be changed."
And Klein, remember, is a man of God. He has not become a crusader for selfish reasons. As a sergeant, he gets a parking space for his Geo -- or at least he gets access to the jail-side lot where he can hunt for a place in one of the 47 designated spaces. But he remembers the days when the search for parking consumed him, too.
"I've had my car towed, I've gotten tickets," he says. "It is stubbornness that keeps me on this."