Tiny Jefferson County fights to keep prison open by Steve Busquet

Posted: February 8, 2012 in News and politics

By Steve Bousquet, Times Columnist

Just east of Tallahassee is Jefferson County, which is suddenly a symbol of all that’s going on during this legislative session as it relates to the economy of Florida.

Jefferson, with a population of about 14,000, is a tranquil place of rolling hills, plantation-style homes with broad porches, and towering oaks. A drive through the area is a nostalgia trip back to a Florida of the 1950s and ’60s.

A stately courthouse in the roundabout at the center of Monticello, the county seat, resembles Florida’s historic Old Capitol.

Jefferson is a poor county, where one out of three residents relies on the government for work. The county has high poverty rates and a narrow tax base, and the little downtown is pockmarked by drab, vacant storefronts.

Jefferson is so small that it’s the only county in the state without a stoplight.

There’s no mall, no Publix, no Walmart. You can’t even find an Internet cafe, the current scourge of Florida communities.

So when Gov. Rick Scott decides to erase state jobs, it packs a powerful wallop in a place such as this.

The tranquility in Jefferson County was shattered recently when Scott’s administration said it would soon eliminate the county’s biggest employer, Jefferson Correctional Institution, a state prison that has been open since 1989.

The inmate population is about 1,100, equivalent to nearly a tenth of the county’s population.

JCI is one of seven prisons slated for closing by July 1 in a cost-saving plan necessitated by a dwindling inmate population. The state ranked prisons based on various factors in which JCI scored poorly. But the ranking system did not consider the fact that under state law, Jefferson is a fiscally constrained county and is a rural area of critical economic concern, which means state agencies must factor that in before making changes affecting the local economy.

JCI inmates mow grass and pick up trash in Jefferson, and they work at a county recycling center. The state promises to offer displaced workers jobs at other prisons, but gas costs nearly $4 a gallon.

Jefferson’s leaders are mounting a full-court press at the Capitol to stop what they see as an economic disaster that would unfairly punish a community.

“We’re a community that’s on life support, and this decision will equate to pulling the plug on our community,” county clerk Kurt Reams told a House committee.

Jefferson votes Democratic in statewide elections, and residents showed a strong preference for Alex Sink over Scott in the 2010 election. But state officials say politics played no role in selecting which prisons to close.

“Twenty years ago, when everybody said, ‘Not in my back yard,’ Jefferson County opened their arms and embraced the opening of the prison there,” said Wendy Bitner, recently hired to help lobby against the closing.

Bitner is the widow of David Bitner, the former state Republican Party chairman who recently died of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The people of Jefferson County are in a fight for economic survival in Tallahassee, and with the session nearly half over, they don’t have much time.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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