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Major proposed changes to Florida prison system alarm workers, advocates

Published Jan. 20, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Determined to cut the size of the $2 billion prison budget, legislators and Gov. Rick Scott are focused on consolidation and privatization.

But as the potential disruption to state employees becomes clear, prison advocates and some lawmakers are scrambling to put the brakes on plans they say could devastate small towns that are highly dependent on prison jobs.

Some of the biggest changes in the agency's history are moving ahead all at once. They include closing seven prisons due to a surplus of vacant prison beds; outsourcing 32 prisons and work camps in South Florida to private vendors; and the privatization of health care for all 100,000 inmates statewide.

No part of state government is facing as much change as the Department of Corrections, and opposition is mounting.

Volunteers at prisons targeted for closure — especially Hillsborough Correctional Institution near Tampa — are sending email pleas to lawmakers to save the state's only faith-based women's prison, and plan a rally Saturday. Corrections officers, worried about losing their jobs, have begun pleading for help before legislative committees.

"I want to keep food on my table. I want a good doctor for my children," prison guard Reshae Cherry, 27, told a Senate panel this week.

For six years, Cherry has worked at Charlotte Correctional Institution, a prison with nearly 1,500 inmates and nearly 500 full-time workers. It is one of the biggest prisons the Legislature wants to turn over to a private company, which means Cherry's employment with the state could soon end and a private company will take over.

"You will lose morale, integrity and pride," Cherry warned senators.

Lawmakers from rural towns are raising concerns that mothballed prisons will cripple economies and leave ugly reminders of jobs long gone. In tiny Jefferson County just east of Tallahassee, a prison slated for closure is by far the county's largest employer, and nearly one of every 10 county residents is a prison inmate.

At a hearing Thursday, Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, said the possibility of closing state prisons worries people, and she reminded state corrections officials about past privatization failures, such as a decision several years ago to sever ties with private food service companies.

"I hope we are looking carefully so there's not an 'Oops!' and that we (the state) really can do it cheaper and better," Coley said.

Deputy Corrections Secretary Mike Crews sought to reassure lawmakers. He said every displaced employee would be given a "preference form" for possible transfers, and that county sheriffs would be urged to hire officers as detention deputies.

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"We're reaching out to local sheriffs," Crews told the House Appropriations Committee. "But there are some tremendous impacts."


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