Jackson County Times

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

ACI Rally In Sneads... A Community In Action!

By Bo McMullian
It looked like a Tea Party gathering at the Sneads ball park Tuesday afternoon, but it was a rally for a grassroots movement of another kind, a movement to save DOC prison and prison-related jobs in east Jackson County.
And if the rhetoric put out by several speakers including Jackson County Commissioner Jeremy Branch and DOC Secretary Walter McNeil is any indication, ACI and other area prisons will be closed or privatized over their dead bodies. That goes for the crowd of about 200 concerned citizens that showed up to express concern.
“We’re here to save our local jobs,” said Jackie Porter of Sneads, the wife of a DOC employee, and Debbie Tridico of Grand Ridge who is a DOC employee herself. “We won’t give up without a fight,” Tridico said.
The rally was organized by Commissioner Jeremy Branch who discovered last week that a bill making its way through the Florida Legislature could have the effect of closing Apalachee Correctional Institution, a prison virtually joined at the hip with the city of Sneads, and diverting state prison funding to a private prison being built in Santa Rosa County. That would be the Blackwater River facility, to be run by the private group called GEO.
The Sneads town council joined in efforts with Branch to publicize the situation, as did the Gadsden County Commission, represented Tuesday by Gene Morgan, and McDaniel’s grocery store, where the rally was first scheduled. But by late Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot at McDaniel’s was suddenly way too small for the expected crowd, so the event was moved across the street to the recreation park. Hundreds turned out to hear Branch, Morgan, Sneads councilman Ricky Whittington and their guests McNeil, Police Benevolent Association union Florida Chapter President Jim Baiardi, former Florida House member Loranne Ausley, who is running for Chief Financial Officer, and House member Rep. Curtis Richardson, who is running for the state senate seat being vacated by Sen. Al Lawson. Branch is running for his second term on the county commission.
None of the legislative contingent who represent this area were able to attend. They were all busy doing their part to avert this action in the halls of the State Legislature in Tallahassee.
Branch told the crowd that the state is breaking a decades-old “covenant” with local communities. “We’ve told the state that we’re willing to accept your hardened criminals in our neighborhoods and communities and you give us the jobs and the industry. But today the state is backing out of that covenant. I apologize for preaching, but it needs to be told, “ Branch said as he turned the microphone over to the other speakers.
Secretary McNeil was just as vociferous against any closings or privatizations. “We’ve had a partnership with you forever,” he told the cheering crowd. “I’m against this Senate bill. I will not stand by idly when persons are talking about closing ACI. We’ll work our fingers to the bone so that this doesn’t come to fruition.” The secretary said the proposed changes to DOC could create a budget deficit in the department which could bring about 600 to 1,000 layoffs and eventually, the early release of prisoners, called “controlled release. We would be turning out prisoners,” he said. “The governor is against that and I believe at the end of the day the Legislature won’t support it either. They believe in the public safety of the people.”
Baiardi called the state funding of the Blackwater prison a “bailout” and “voodoo economics. It stinks,” he said. “Call them and tell them no, no, no!”
Ausley said it’s a “David and Goliath story” and said her opponent in the CFO race is for the senate bill. “Why did they pay $160 million for a prison that was not needed,” she said. “The math doesn’t make sense.”
Richardson said people should say, “not no but hell no! This was a back room middle of the night deal. Tell Senate President Jeff Atwater he can keep this deal in Tallahassee.”
Morgan presented a resolution from the Gadsden commission to Secretary McNeil “opposing the closing of public institutions.”
Whittington said “ACI represents a tremendous impact to our town of Sneads and the sooner we get this behind us, the sooner we can worry about things like where the fishing is good.”
“This is the people vs. the politicians,” Branch said in closing. “Privatization is a bad policy. You can put lipstick on it but it still stinks. Get on the computer now. Save your jobs!”

Caption:  Speakers at the Sneads rally on Tuesday included, seated from left to right, Sneads councilmen Ricky Whittington, Loranne Ausley, Curtis Richardson, Jeremy Branch and at the microphone, DOC Secretary Walter A. McNeil - Photo by Bo McMullian/Times

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