Prison closures spark questions, concerns

Jan 25, 2012

Some lawmakers are raising concerns about the Department of Corrections closure of prisons, two facilities in particular. As Sascha Cordner reports, while some argued about the closing of a women’s faith-based prison, others wonder if the department is taking into account the impact of shutting down prisons in small communities. 

Members of the Senate Committee that oversees the budget for Criminal and Civil Justice issues agree, for the most part, with the Department of Corrections that prison closures are necessary to save the state millions of dollars. That includes the panel’s Chairman, Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey:

“I accept the fact that prisons have to close down. I accept the fact that we cannot continue to have prisons open that are not going to be used and the wasting of tax dollars.”

But, that’s where the agreement ends. To save the state money, the Legislature is looking into privatizing about 30 South Florida prisons as well as using the closure of 11 correctional facilities to cut costs. Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker admits both efforts will cause about 6,000 correctional employees to lose their jobs,…about 2-thousand due to the prison closings.

“There are counties, there are municipalities that perhaps can deal with this economic hit. For them, it’s a hiccup in the road to economic development. For them, it’s like losing a pedicure. For Jefferson county, you’re cutting off our foot.”

Dick Bailar is a former minister of a Congregational church in Coral Gables. The 83-year-old is now a retiree in Jefferson County, and is a member of the county’s legislative delegation. He pleaded before members of the committee to spare Jefferson, which he says can’t afford the prison closure:

“We have been hit hard. We’ve lost four grocery stores, we’ve lost a pharmacy, we’ve lost our real estate agency, we are hurting and to take six-percent of our employees and fire them, to take 10-percent of our population and move it out of the county, to disrupt families, put homes on foreclosure, to take kids out of school, this is the wrong deal!”

David Williams is a correctional officer who’s worked at Jefferson Correctional Institution for eight years. He  also feels the community is getting a raw deal. The Corrections’ department has asked employees, like him, to fill out a chart of which open facility they would like to go to.

Committee chairman, Senator Fasano, questioned Williams about how losing his job at Jefferson and transitioning to another facility would personally affect him:

Fasano: “Did you pick an institution sir?

Williams: We actually got the actual papers yesterday. I had to…if I didn’t put it, they were going to send me to an institution. And, basically, if I didn’t report there, I would be telling them that I resign?

Fasano: Which one did you choose?

Williams: I choose Wakulla and Madison.

Fasano: How far is that away from where you live now?

Williams: From where I’m living now, Wakulla, Madison both would be 40 to 45 miles.

Fasano: Got [it]…[wait]….40 to 45 miles?

Williams: Yes, Sir.

Fasano: Wow!”

Republican Senator Mike Bennett also worries about the economic impact the closures will have on small and rural communities, like Jefferson. He asked Corrections’ head Ken Tucker if the department was doing their homework:

“You stated a few minutes ago that you all did not have the expertise in the Department of Corrections to measure all of those impacts. Somebody in the state of Florida does! We certainly got a whole lot of professors that we pay on our state payroll that sit over on their duff and work nine hours a week. Did we ever think to go over and do a study of the economic impact and the social impact? Did we ever calculate what’s going to cost the increase in unemployment?”

Secretary Tucker still maintains the department is doing everything it can to find as jobs and transfer staff to other correctional facilities as well as other agencies.

But, he still wasn’t off the hook, when lawmakers took up a considerable amount of the meeting by asking Tucker about the closure of Hillsborough Correctional Institution. It’s a women’s faith-based prison with a low recidivism rate. Championing the efforts of keeping it open was Republican Senators Fasano and Ronda Storms of Brandon.

Both Tucker and Storms disagreed over the figure, but they did agree that Hillsborough’s recidivism rate was still below the state’s overall female inmate recidivism rate of 19-percent. So, she says there is no basis to close a successfully-run prison just because of costs, and she’ll fight the closure to the very end.

“I know you told me that you knew that was I was going to have to fight you on this Mr. Secretary. And, I may not be successful at the end. But, I do challenge the veracity of almost all the information that DOC has, and I’m not like Senator Fasano, and that, Senator Fasano, says he’ll take your information, but I won’t take your information because I know what I’ve discovered on my side of it, and it’s very frustrating to me as an elected official, not you personally, but everything else that I’ve experienced it’s frustrating to me.”

The House is considering a similar budget proposal dealing with prison closures, which would not include the shutdown of Hillsborough Correctional. Tucker was asked to hold off on closing Hillsborough, just in case the Governor and lawmakers can come to a decision about the closure of Hillsborough. Tucker, though, says he has a strict timetable to follow in closing the 11 correctional facilities to cut costs.