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Rural Jackson County, laid-off workers feel the pinch of Dozier school's closing

MARIANNA — To the rest of Florida, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was best known for its dark history as a place where the reformatory's guards regularly beat their charges until that practice was ended a few decades ago. But to the current residents of rural Jackson County, it was an economic engine, providing steady, decent-paying jobs in a region that needs them.

But no more — the Panhandle reform school's closure last month has left most of its approximately 200 employees out of work and cut $14.5 million in annual spending from the local economy, mostly salaries. There are families in this county of 50,000 with several generations who spent their working lives at the reform school.

"It's just a dagger," said Shane Mercer, 50, who runs the auto body shop his father opened in 1973. "When you lose 200 jobs in a small community like this, it's tough."

The closure had nothing to do with the school's past, but with the state's present: Gov. Rick Scott was looking to cut government costs, and Dozier became a target. State Rep. Marti Coley, who represents the area, said it was hard to argue to keep the reform school open when there were newer, less-costly facilities elsewhere that could handle Dozier's population, which had dwindled from several hundred over the years to about 90.

The last state unemployment report showed that 7.4 percent of Jackson County's residents are unemployed — only six of the state's 67 counties had a lower unemployment rate. A large reason, however, is because of government jobs.

"We don't have other industry. We don't have other jobs available for these employees to go to," said Coley, adding that she's talked to Scott about the problem. "We have huge job loss, what are we going to do about it? We have to bring more industry, other than state jobs, into these areas. We're ready. Bring 'em on."

Dozier opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School, and for some of its history it had a reputation for brutality. In the 1950s and early 1960s, boys would be taken to a small building called the White House, where they were beaten by guards for offenses as slight as singing or talking to a black inmate. They would be hit dozens of times — sometimes more than 100 — with a wide, 3-foot long leather strap that had sheet metal stuffed in the middle. Three years ago, the state put a plaque outside the long-closed building to acknowledge what had happened there.

But that was the past, residents say, and the community was proud of the school.

Donald Mears left a city job for an $11.29-an-hour officer's position three years ago because he thought it was a career upgrade, never imagining the school could close.

Now Mears, 44, is skipping days on his high-blood pressure medicine because he doesn't know whether he'll be able to afford the pills once his state insurance benefits run out at the end of the month. He and his wife are also on food stamps.

"It's embarrassing," Mears said. "Yesterday I got two gallons of milk and a package of pork chops. I'm used to pulling out a $20 bill and paying for it."

The county has other prisons, but with belt-tightening at the Corrections Department, there's not much room to take in the former Dozier workers. The Juvenile Justice Department said that of the 191 workers given layoff notices, six received jobs elsewhere in the department and nine were placed with other state agencies.

About 100 of the Dozier workers have visited the One-Stop Career Center — the local unemployment office — and others have gone to the center's website seeking help. Lloyd Mills, a counselor at the reform school, has been stopping in regularly. After retiring from the Army, Mills began working at the school 11 years ago. At age 52, he has no idea where he's going to find work in the area. He's angry that only a month's notice was given.

"If you're going to close, give us more warning for that. That was not enough time for people who have been out there 10, 12, 20 years to tell them 'Wham! In 30 days, you're gone,'" Mills said. "That's not fair. Nobody should be treated like that."

The emphasis on cutting government positions under Scott and the Republican Legislature has other people in the county worried, especially after seeing what happened to Dozier.

"When the Legislature meets, you keep your fingers crossed. You pray that you make it," said Donnie Edenfield, 40, who has been a probation officer in Marianna for 18 years.

Rural Jackson County, laid-off workers feel the pinch of Dozier school's closing 07/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2014 12:11pm]
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