Definitely in My Back Yard

When the residents of Mangonia Park heard that a girls' detention center might be built in their town, they put out the welcome mat

But just across 45th Street, the road that divides the two neighboring municipalities, West Palm Beach city officials and a few of that city's neighborhood associations have a different take on the issue. The detention center, they say, is one more example of industrial overload, which will adversely affect not only Mangonia Park but West Palm Beach as well. During public hearings last year, dozens of West Palm Beach residents showed up to protest the detention center, and the neighborhood associations pressured the city to file a lawsuit. But both efforts failed; plans to build the the center are under way.

Ron Dixon, a West Palm Beach resident, says: "I tried to explain to them, 'It may benefit you in the short run, but the quality of what's going to be on 45th Street is going to hurt you.'"

The 31,000-square-foot detention center will be built on a three-acre plot on the outskirts of Mangonia Park, along train tracks that separate the town from its neighbor. The building, along with outdoor basketball and volleyball courts, will be surrounded by a 14-foot-high fence and kept secure with an electronically operated double gate. The jail's immediate neighbors include a handful of homes in Mangonia Park and, in West Palm Beach, a mental hospital, a children's hospital, and two smaller detention centers -- one for juveniles, the other for adults.

The other two jails are run by the state, but the Mangonia Park facility will be operated by the same company that plans to build it, the Sarasota-based Correctional Services Corporation (CSC), which owns 33 other jails nationwide. The new jail will house up to 126 girls age 13 through 17 who have been convicted of felonies, such as theft and drug dealing. But CSC doesn't just incarcerate. Its programs focus on education and building self-esteem, according to Jim Irving, CSC's vice president of the juvenile division.

Final building plans for the detention center will be presented to Mangonia Park's town council in late August, and construction is scheduled to begin by the end of the year.

But one fairly significant issue -- one that has West Palm Beach residents worried -- has yet to be resolved. It is not yet definite that the new jail will house juveniles. Typically, when the state determines a need exists for a juvenile jail, the legislature appropriates money for it, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) reviews proposals made by private companies. After the proposals have arrived, DJJ signs a long-term contract with the most qualified candidate. The terms are simple: The state sends convicted criminals to the jail and pays the jail's operators to handle the rest. The state, however, regulates and oversees all jail programs.

CSC is about ready to build the Mangonia Park facility, but the company doesn't have a contract with the state. In fact, the state didn't even solicit proposals in this case. The state acknowledges, however, that there is a need for juvenile detention centers, according to John Joyce, a spokesman for the DJJ. In fact, there's a particular need for facilities for girls.

Jim Slattery, CSC's president and chief executive officer, is banking the whole project on this fact. He's so sure the demand for a girls' jail exists that he's moving forward with construction plans even without a state contract. He notes, however, that the company won't go too far without evidence from the state that it's willing to negotiate a contract.

Plans for the jail first began in early 1996, when a local developer, Rick Kolb, began scouting land for CSC. With help from Mangonia Park's town administrator, Darla Levy, Kolb located the three-acre plot, which is now just a grassy field surrounded by trees. Levy says that the property's former owner, Dr. Ronald Curtis, had purchased the land seven years earlier with the intent of building a medical complex. But Curtis never got the money together and had been looking to sell the property ever since.

It wasn't easy. The property was close to the railroad tracks and was not equipped with a sewer line or a water line, which would be an added expense for the buyer. But CSC agreed to pay for the installment of both if the town allowed the company to purchase the land and build the jail.

This didn't seem like a bad idea. The jail wouldn't be too close to most of the town's homes, and CSC claimed it would provide qualified Mangonia Park residents with 100 jobs -- guards, maintenance workers, secretaries, and administrators -- at a payroll of $2.5 million.

Mangonia Park needs the jobs. The 1990 U.S. Census figures show that the town's unemployment rate was then 11.7 percent, one of the highest in Palm Beach County and more than twice the country's overall unemployment rate at the time. The county rate has increased slightly since then, so it's likely Mangonia Park's rate has followed suit, according to Sue Patterson, an economic analyst with the Florida Department of Labor. Based on state statistics, she estimates that about 73 people in Mangonia Park are actively seeking work.

Once an all-white town, Mangonia Park is now 60 percent minority, with a median income of $22,000. For the most part, according to the census, Mangonia Park residents have only a high-school education, and the vast majority of working residents are employed in service, clerical, and vocational jobs. Even with just a high-school education, many unemployed residents could qualify for jobs with CSC.

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