County scrambles to squelch prison closure

An out-of-the-blue report that surfaced last week that all
three of Gulf County’s Florida correctional facilities could be getting the axe
presented an urgent situation.

It looks as though, at least for the time being, the county
won’t be completely singing the blues.

The original plan in the Senate legislation called for the
closure of all the beds at Gulf Correctional Institution, now at 1,568, as well
as the Gulf CI Annex, which is another 1,398 beds, plus the work camp. They
would, as originally proposed, be torn down by 2024.

A whirlwind effort by county commissioners, staff and state legislators,
scrambling to save the 878 jobs at Gulf County’s two prisons and work camp,
looks to have paid off, to a point.

Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic
Development Coalition, said the latest plan calls for saving the 3,000-plus
beds at the combined Gulf CI and annex, with no plan in place as of now to renovate
the annex, at an estimated $8 million cost for renovations. In addition, if
approved, the state would move forward with closure of the Gulf Forestry Camp,
while keeping the facility in mothballs.

He said discussions regarding the work camp are ongoing, but
it may will be an uphill battle, as DOC and the Senate are hammering out plans that
include closing all the work camps.

“All in all a great save by our county team and especially State
Representative Jason Shoaf and State Senator Lorraine Ausley,” said McKnight.

Gulf County Commission Chairman Sandy Quinn, and commissioners
Ward McDaniel, David Rich, Patrick Farrell and Philip McCroan, together with County
Administrator Michael Hammond and County Engineer Clay Smallwood, pushed their
case to the state legislators, as well as before Department of Corrections
Secretary Mark Inch.

The DOC decision to close 6,000 beds statewide in the Senate
budget was due to a 16,000-inmate reduction in the state’s prisoner census, due
in part to COVID and in larger part to changes in drug laws that have led to
less lengthy sentences.

State corrections officials have maintained the Gulf CI closures
in the northern portion of the county, which together comprise the largest
prison complex in the state, were called for due to high vacancy rates there in
the wake of Hurricane Michael.

Following the 2018 storm, the DOC transferred Gulf employees
to other prisons, and due to the delays in renovating the prison, many staff
have not returned, leading to the vacancy rate. Gulf County officials stressed
that prior to the hurricane, the vacancy rate in Gulf County was equal to or
less than the state’s average vacancy rate.

The team pressed Inch not to cripple the families in the
county by eliminating state jobs that helped fill the void of the mill closure
20 years ago, only to be later devastated by Hurricane Michael and COVID. A proposed
elimination of the county’s biggest employer, encompassing 18 percent of the
county’s jobs, would be a further blow in a rural sector of the state with a limited range of other industries and businesses to absorb the job losses, argued county

Local officials reminded those in Tallahassee that Gulf
County donated the land for this facility, paved the road, and provided other
infrastructure support for its opening in 1992. After Hurricane Michel
devastated Gulf CI in 2018, over the past two years the state spent $19 million
on repairs and renovations to put the facility in good working order.

“We would have like to have saved both prisons, but the
reality was they were going to close one of them,” said Hammond. “The annex
needed $8 million in renovations and the outmigration of employees after
Michael would have made staffing both facilities a herculean task at two
prisons side-by-side.

“We remain interested and continue to work toward saving the
work camp, as that inmate labor is a big part of maintaining our county and city
properties,” he said.

“We are appreciative of Representative Jason Shoaf and
Senator Lorraine Ausley stepping up to help save our prisons, and the jobs now
held by Gulf County citizens with family with roots here,” said Quinn.

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.