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Amid applause, accolades, House moves to save Jefferson County prison

The Florida House broke into a celebratory round of applause Wednesday after lawmakers voted unanimously to save a prison from closing in Jefferson County, an act that could have devastated the economy there.

Jefferson County has been at the forefront of the debate to close prisons for the past few weeks, as residents have repeatedly made the 30-mile drive to Tallahassee to plea to lawmakers. 

Residents pointed out that closing the prison would cost the rural community more than 175 jobs and shutter the county’s largest employer.

Lawmakers had appeared to take a hard line on closing Jefferson Correctional Institute, an act seen as necessary to save money. But Wednesday, Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who is heading up the budget process, was able to find money in the budget to keep the prison open as the House voted on the annual budget.

Several lawmakers--including some Republicans who had earlier voted to close the prison--patted themselves on the back and thanked Grimsley for finding the extra cash in the budget.

“Thanks Chair Grimsley,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “You have heard the cry of the people, in that sometimes it is not just a dollar issue but a people issue.”

Grimsley said she was moved by the pleas of Jefferson County residents, many of whom were in the Chamber on Wednesday.

“After listening to their testimony last week and their love of their community, I just can’t stand by and let this happen,” she said.

Grimsley’s amendment also provides for $50,000 for a study that would document the potential impact of a prison closing in Jefferson County.

The measure still has to pass the Senate.