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

"I feel if they have the opportunity to work, then some of them would," suggests Thomas.

Despite the job opportunities, not everyone in town is in favor of the proposed jail. Jean Rowland, a single, 71-year-old woman, moved to Mangonia Park in 1974 from a town in upstate New York not too far, she says, from Attica, home of the state penitentiary notorious for a riot that took place there in 1971.

"I didn't like the idea of when people drive into Mangonia Park from West Palm Beach, the first thing they see is a prison," says Rowland, who was a councilwoman when Kolb first approached the council with the jail proposal in February 1997.

At that time the town's zoning regulations didn't even take a jail into consideration. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the town council agreed it should draft a carefully worded ordinance to allow for such a facility. The ordinance states that, with special permission from the council, a company may build a juvenile jail, offer a work-release program, or put together a "secured and/or unsecured recovery or treatment facility."

Rowland didn't want a girls' jail in town, but she had even more problems with the other options. For her, "work release" meant criminals would get to leave the center during the day. "Secured and/or unsecured" could mean anything. And, as Rowland points out, CSC has yet to sign a contract with the state. If a contract isn't signed and the jail is built, the town could be left with an empty building. Either that, or CSC may want to protect its investment by returning to the council and requesting permission to use the jail for another purpose -- perhaps a men's penitentiary for hard-core felons. With this in mind, in February 1997 Rowland cast the single dissenting vote against the new ordinance.

Residents were incensed. The jail would be a source of employment and tax revenue, both of which are needed in Mangonia Park. CSC claimed the jail would, over time, have a $10 million economic impact on the town and the surrounding cities, based on projections from the Florida Department of Corrections. CSC would contract out for food and laundry services; visitors would eat lunch or get gas in Mangonia Park. More to the point, CSC would pay the town $40,000 a year in property taxes, plus thousands more in fees each year. It wasn't much in the grand scheme of the town's $2 million budget, but it was something. And ever since Palm Beach Jai Alai closed its doors in 996, the city of Mangonia Park has been looking for something that would help it get along. Rowland disagreed, and voters showed their disapproval during the city election in March.

"We voted for something we believed in, and basically the people did too, because they voted Jean Rowland out of office," says Mayor Alan Palmer.

But like Rowland, West Palm Beach residents worried about the uncertain future of the proposed jail. Some also expressed concern about reports they'd read about problems with CSC. In 1995, for instance, CSC lost a contract in New Jersey for allegedly abusing inmates at a privately run Immigration and Naturalization Services jail. And in 1997, a Miami judge pulled eight boys out of a juvenile center in Pahokee, in western Palm Beach County, because the judge thought the young men were being treated too roughly. CSC officials deny the allegations, and the DJJ refers to CSC as "a capable provider." Still, some West Palm Beach residents are wary not only of CSC but of their neighbor's willingness to look the other way.

Mangonia Park "is going to be like a company town," argues Jacqueline Smith, president of the Westfield Neighborhood Association in West Palm Beach. "This is going to be the biggest facility there now that jai alai is closed down, and I can see them having a great deal of influence there by the nature of the size and amount of the investment."

In mid-1997, Smith's association joined forces with two other West Palm Beach neighborhood associations to mount a full-scale lobbying campaign. The three groups represent 600 single-family homes, all located within a mile of the proposed detention center. They were supported by Palm Beach County Commissioner Maude Ford Lee and three of the five West Palm Beach City Commissioners. But after two public hearings in Mangonia Park, dozens of protest letters sent to state legislators, and even a lawsuit filed by the city of West Palm Beach (which the city lost), the associations were unable to persuade their neighbor to scrap plans for the jail.

To Mangonia Park residents, the victory proved a point: Mangonia Park not only wants the jail, the town needs it, and no one from West Palm Beach is going to tell them what they can or can't put in their own back yard.

Mayor Palmer, a full-time electrician, grew up in Mangonia Park and recalls that, when he was a little boy, his parents vigorously fought against West Palm Beach's decision to place a mental hospital along the border of Mangonia Park. The hospital went up anyway. "When all these other facilities went up," he scoffs, "we complained and no one listened to us."

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