Florida Town Faces Devastation if Prison Closes
What does a prison mean? In some places, it means everything. A rural north Florida community that went out on a limb to get its state prison is now about to lose it.
Late in the 80s, with crime rising and prisons filling up, Florida needed new prison sites but few counties wanted to be one. Jefferson County, just east of Tallahassee, was different. Then, as now, underpopulated and desperately poor, it saw an opportunity and it did something unusual.
“We welcomed them with open arms,” said Kirk Reams, Jefferson County's court clerk and chief financial officer.
“Our county commission went and bought this property, 300 acres, we went out and bought it and donated it to the state,” he said.
In 1990, the county's gift became Jefferson Correctional Institution and JCI became the region's primary employer and economic engine.
In a county of 14,000, about 200 people are directly employed by the prison -- that's six percent of the workforce -- and everybody else depends on it.
But times have changed. Crime is down, prisons beds have fallen empty and the state has decided to close 11 prisons and work camps. Because of its low score on a complicated point system, one of them is Jefferson Correctional.
“It would be the equivalent of taking the job at Disney out of Orange County,” Reams said.
Apart from its jobs, and the economy it anchors, the prison is deeply entwined with Jefferson County and its only town, Monticello.
Prison work crews maintain the streets and parks at no cost to local government. They separate recyclables from garbage at Monticello's solid waste plant, which director Beth Letchworth says earns the county $70,000 in a good year.
“To replace this squad with five people at minimum wage would cost this county $140,000,” she said.
Like almost everybody you meet here, Letchworth is a native of Jefferson County and a former prison worker. So is Sam Flowers.
“Well, my wife works out there, too. So it would hurt my family. It would be a hardship on my family if it happens,” Flowers said.
At a recent town hall meeting at Monticello's elegant little courthouse, two state senators and two state representatives spoke. None of them sounded very hopeful about saving the prison.
About 200 people are packed into the courtroom to testify. In the last hour, dozens of "JCI Means Jobs" yard signs have appeared on the street. Paul Michael says local businesses, many facing bankruptcy, paid for them.
“There's total buy-in out here in this county. I don't know anybody who wants the prison to leave. It's part of our county. We're serious about it.” Michael said.
The testimony is passionate and personal. Paula Pierce, the wife of a JCI prison guard, said there are no other jobs within miles of Monticello, and Governor Rick Scott --who signed the prison closing order -- should know that.
“I don't understand why he wants to pick on Jefferson. I don't understand why he cannot come and face us, and look in the faces of the people he is impacting,” she said.
Jerry Loggins, who just made lieutenant after 13 years at JCI, said the community has been betrayed by the Department of Corrections, the DOC.
“The land out there, we gave them. And now DOC wants to snatch our jobs away,” Loggins said.
The county's lobbyists and legislators say they've made little headway toward getting JCI off the closing list. If they fail, the prison is slated to close by July 1. Most in Jefferson Country are preparing to have their gift of 20 years ago thrown back at them, and return from having little to having nothing.
©2015 WUSF. All rights reserved.