CROSS CITY, Fla. — The Florida Department of Corrections is in crisis, caused by a staffing shortage that has led to prisons closing.
In our continuing coverage, the ABC Action News I-Team traveled 150 miles north to Dixie County and uncovered how those closures are already having a negative economic impact on Florida’s small towns.
Cross City, Dixie County’s largest city, now finds itself at a crossroads. The water tower and prison lookout posts are by far the tallest structures for miles around.
In good economic times, inmates outnumber residents. But these are not good times, according to residents who worry about their small town’s future.
“There’s a lot of talk going on right now. A lot of people worried about what’s gonna happen if they permanently close down all of it,” said 20-year-old Triston Weaver.
“You’ve got a lot of people that are wondering how’s it gonna turn out?” said Bart Mauldin.
Community at a Crossroads
The Florida Department of Corrections is Dixie County’s largest employer, giving jobs to more than 400 people. Currently, two out of the three units at the Cross City Correctional Institution are closed, meaning those employees have to travel to other prisons for work.
A flood last year that damaged the prison was partially to blame. But the reason those units have remained closed can be blamed on a statewide crisis in the prison system.
Of 18,000 security positions in Florida’s Department of Corrections, 5,500 are currently vacant. That’s led the state to close prisons, work camps, and work release programs. Inmates and staff have also been consolidated at other facilities.
“If you close down the prison system in some of these rural communities, you’re gonna find it’s gonna reshape those communities,” said Florida Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg).
“All of those rural counties… some of them, that’s their only economy. So when you begin to close them, you’re hurting them,” said Florida Representative Dianne Hart (D-Tampa).
Chris Doolin of the Florida Small Counties Coalition recently expressed that concern to lawmakers.
“The Department of Corrections has a very close relationship and importance to the communities they exist in. Most of them are fiscally constrained. The institutions are economic drivers,” he told the House Criminal Justice Committee in September.
58% of Florida’s Counties considered rural
The majority of Florida prisons are in rural counties, which are defined as having fewer than 150,000 residents. Thirty-nine of Florida’s 67 counties are considered rural.
“This scares our small counties when one goes down like this,” Doolin said.
Dixie County has 17,000 residents, a little more than one percent of Hillsborough County’s population.
“The town ain’t known as being the richest town in Florida,” Weaver said.
Even with full prison employment, Dixie County’s poverty rate is 22 percent, almost double the state and national averages. Rusty single-wide trailers dot Cross City’s landscape.
“There’s always gonna be an adverse effect when people’s jobs are on the line,” Mauldin said.
Mauldin is a Navy veteran and University of Florida graduate who operates a combination barbershop and thrift store in Cross City.
Haircuts there still cost $10. But when people aren’t working at the prison, not as many people are sitting in Mauldin’s chair.
“Not just them, but their families. Then you’ve got the other businesses that rely on them to do business with them,” he said.
Customer Triston Weaver said his mom and several friends work at the prison. Some are now having to drive an hour each way to another facility.
“Yeah, it’s a small town. Who cares if they lose a prison? But people that’s living here, it’s eventually gonna hurt all them because there’s nowhere for them to work so eventually everybody’s gonna leave,” Weaver said.
Towns’ economies depend on prison visitors
Most of Cross City’s economy depends on spending from not only prison workers but also on prison visitors. People visiting inmates patronize the town’s diners, gas stations, and motels.
Brittany Huffman, who is a 21-year-old single mother, manages the Carriage Inn Motel.
“$71.50 a night, Friday and Saturday $82.50,” she said, quoting the rates for rooms.
It’s not exactly the Ritz, but it’s the closest hotel to the prison. So for decades, guests have stayed there when they come to visit inmates.
“Since this closed down, I haven’t had any come… any people to visit. Cause you can’t visit. It’s not open for them to go there,” Huffman said.
And Huffman worries local residents who now commute could end up moving away, taking those jobs with them.
“That’s probably the only job that pays decent around here. All the other ones…no,” she said. “I work seven days a week, no days off. We’re open 24/7, I have to answer all through the night. Doesn’t matter. If I miss a customer, I lose business.”
For all that work, Huffman is compensated with a free place to live and a small weekly salary.
“I make exactly $500 every two weeks. With taxes being took it, it leaves me $426,” she said.
The Department of Corrections said even with starting pay for corrections officers at $34,000, workers are harder to find in rural communities since young people are moving to big cities for higher-paying jobs.
Triston Weaver is not following in his mom’s footsteps by working for the prison, but he doesn’t plan to leave Dixie County. He was recently offered a job as a sheriff’s deputy.
“To me it’s where I grew up, it’s where all my friends grew up,” Weaver said. “It’s home. I wouldn’t leave it unless I had to.”
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at email@example.com.