Sunday, May 4, 2008

Baldwin prison expansion could create 500 jobs

Posted by llupo May 03, 2008 01:15AM

BALDWIN — At the round table in the Main Stream Cafe, there was no debating the big news of the week.

A Florida company's plan to re-open and expand a "punk prison" that was shuttered 2 1/2 years ago is nothing but good news for this village of 1,200 residents, cafe owner Mareo Tabiadon said Friday.

"When they left, it hurt me. It hurt us all," said Tabiadon, who opened his cafe in 2005, just before the state canceled its contract with the privately owned prison.

This week, GEO Group Inc. announced it will reopen the 500-bed facility and expand it by another 1,225 beds. The company said it plans to market the facility to federal and state agencies around the country. Groundbreaking on the $60 million expansion should begin soon and be ready for occupancy in early 2009, said GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez.

The news is a welcome ray of hope for Baldwin, whose economy was shattered when the state canceled its 20-year lease on the "punk prison" -- the name it was given because it was designed to house the worst youthful offenders.

While it is not clear where the new prisoners will come from, Baldwin residents say they will be welcome.

Business owner James Truxton, the former village president, estimated the expansion will bring as many as 500 good-paying jobs to the area. The old facility employed 230.

"I would expect to see housing sales go back up," he said.

"People who are working for $20,000 a year now should be able to start out at $42,000 a year."

State Rep. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, said the announcement was made possible by a 2006 state law that gave GEO more latitude in the type of prisoner that can be housed in the facility. The law changed a rule that restricted the prison to offenders younger than 18, Hansen said. The new law permits medium- and minimum-security prisoners of all ages.

"The prison was built as a maximum security prison, but I didn't want other states to send us their worst or their hardest to deal with," Hansen said.

The state law also requires GEO to return prisoners to their sentencing jurisdiction before they are released, Hansen said.

"They have to go back to where they came from."

While GEO has remained mum on the type of prisoner it hopes to place in the facility, Truxton said he has heard from "relatively reliable sources" the new prisoners may be illegal aliens who have run afoul of the law or apprehended.

"I don't think it makes any difference to the local population," Truxton said. "Prisoners are prisoners."

During the six years the prison housed youthful offenders, only one inmate escaped, Truxton said. He was apprehended within hours with the assistance of local police and residents.

"This is up north," he said. "We've all got guns. We consider a jail break to be a sporting event."

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