Jackson County Times

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Budget Cuts Threaten Jackson County Economy

Department of Corrections may be forced to close five state prisons….
Will ACI be on the list?
By Sid Riley
Jackson County has always been relatively immune to recessions. With a small industrial base, a large agricultural foundation, and a multitude of government facilities, what became huge economic swings for most of the nation were historically only small “blinks” in the economy here. That is all in prospect of being changed.
Apalachee Correctional Institution was opened in 1949, and has been a sustaining force in the economy of Jackson County since that event. Today it is home away from home for over 2000 involuntary residents, and employs some 630 people, primarily in the eastern section of the county which includes Sneads, Grand Ridge, Cypress, Dellwood, Two Egg, and Marianna.
At this time our legislators are in the throes of putting together next year’s budget…with huge revenue shortfalls caused by our soaring statewide unemployment levels, and this year…without any federal “Stimulus Funds” to prop things up. As part of the budget process, the Department of Corrections was instructed to remove $3,000,000 from its annual operational budget. They were instructed to accomplish this feat by closing five state prisons, and moving the involved inmates to the newly constructed “Blackwater” privatized prison in Santa Rosa County.
Reportedly, this action was instigated by District 17 Senator J.D. Alexander, from Polk County. Alexander, who Chairs the Ways and Means Committee, has been a proponent of privatization of the prison system for many years. The current budget crunch has stimulated more interest in this approach. In a move which aroused complaints of violation of the spirit of the Sunshine Laws and transparency in state government edicts, as an appropriations bill was nearing completion, at the last moment Alexander attached an amendment which ordered the cuts by the Department of Corrections. Opponents argued that this preplanned tactic was unethical, since those who would have argued against the measure had no prior warning of his intent.
Since ACI is a relatively old prison, many of the buildings are aging and in need of refurbishing or reconstruction. Reportedly, many have potential mould and asbestos problems which will have to be corrected. These problems may add to ACI’s vulnerability.
Senator Al Lawson told the TIMES that he is working as hard as possible to stop the progress of this impending, pending legislation. He has sponsored an amendment to the bill which would remove the closure requirement from the bill. Meanwhile, he is also working to form a coalition of colleagues in the Senate who would vote against the bill if and when it reaches the floor with the Alexander amendment intact. Thus, Lawson is currently calling in all his “favors” and “trump cards” as he negotiates to prevent privatization of the prison system in Florida.
In a separate conversation with Representative Brad Drake, he told the TIMES that no similar legislation has appeared in the House. He said that he and Marti Coley were working to assist Senator Lawson as much as possible in defense of ACI. He stated that if no similar legislation is sponsored in the House, the only opportunity Representatives would have for input on the issue would be during the meeting of the Conference Committee, which would involve the joint participation of both legislative branches. We were unable to reach Representative Marti Coley for a direct conversation…her phone system was full and taking no messages….undoubtedly it was full of calls from concerned Jackson County citizens.

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