How Florida Prison Reform Could Impact Small Town Jobs

Jan 31, 2012

MONTICELLO, Fl. -- Late in the 1980s, crime was rising, prisons were filling up and Florida needed new places to build prisons. But a grim penitentiary full of criminals was a gift that few counties wanted back then.  

Jefferson County, just east of Tallahassee, was different. Then, as now, under populated and desperately poor, it saw an opportunity and it did something unusual. 

"We welcomed them with open arms," recalls Jefferson's court clerk and chief financial officer Kirk Reams. "Our county commission went and bought this property, 300 acres, and donated it to the state."

Now that 300 acres is Jefferson Correctional Institution, the region's primary employer and economic engine. In a county of 14,ooo, about 200 people -- six percent of the workforce -- are directly employed by the prison and everybody else depends on it.

'JCI Means Jobs'

But times have changed since the prison opened in 1990. Crime is down, prisons beds have fallen empty. 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. According to Reams, that would devastate the county and its main town, Monticello. "It would be the equivalent of taking the jobs at Disney out of Orange County."

Hundreds packed the courthouse to save their prison.
Credit Rick Stone

The news broke fast. The county's two state representatives and two state senators scheduled a town hall meeting at Monticello's elegant little courthouse.  Local businesses mobilized and, by the night of the meeting, dozens of campaign signs had appeared all over town. They all said the same thing: "JCI Means Jobs."

Among the 200 people who packed the courtroom to be heard was Paula Pierce, the wife of a JCI guard. She told the legislative panel there are no other jobs within miles of Monticello. Closing an impoverished community's only industry, to her, was a decision that seemed cowardly and inexplicable.

"I don't understand why (Gov. Rick Scott) wants to pick on Jefferson," she said to loud applause. "I don't understand why he cannot come and face us, why he can't come and and look in the faces of the people he is impacting."

The community had been betrayed by the Department of Corrections, complained Jerry Loggins who came to the meeting in his correctional officer uniform with shiny new lieutenant's insignia. He had just been promoted after 13 years at JCI.

"The land out there, we gave them" Scoggins said. "And now DOC wants to snatch our jobs away."

No Prisoners, No Profit

Monticello is a small town with most of its development and business activity on two main roads. Down one of them is the county's tiny sold waste  plant where a detachment of five prisoners regularly shows up to separate the garbage from recyclable stuff.  Plant manager Beth Letchworth, a local native and former prison worker,  explains the operation nets the county about $70,000 a year and the money would be missed and irreplaceable if the prison were to close.

"To replace this squad with five people at minimum wage would cost this county $140,000," she said.

The county has hired a lobbyist to work with local legislators to get JCI off the prison closing list. So far, they have made little headway. The prison is slated to close by July 1. Most in Jefferson County are preparing to have their gift of 20 years ago thrown back at them, and return from having little to having nothing.