'It's just too much': A Florida town grapples with a shutdown after a hurricane

Damage from Hurricane Michael lingers throughout Marianna, Florida. The government shutdown has made things worse for many residents.
Damage from Hurricane Michael lingers throughout Marianna, Florida. The government shutdown has made things worse for many residents.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MARIANNA, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) - A federal prison here in Florida's rural Panhandle lost much of its roof and fence during Hurricane Michael in October, forcing hundreds of inmates to relocate to a facility in Yazoo City, Mississippi, more than 400 miles away.

Since then, corrections officers have had to commute there to work, a seven-hour drive, for two-week stints. As of this week, thanks to the partial federal government shutdown, they will be doing it without pay - no paychecks and no reimbursement for gas, meals and laundry, expenses that can run hundreds of dollars per trip.

"You add a hurricane, and it's just too much," said Mike Vinzant, a 32-year-old guard and the president of the local prison officers' union.

If nature can be blamed for creating the first financial hardship, the second is the result of the even less predictable whims in Washington: President Donald Trump warned last week that the shutdown might last "months or even years."

In Florida, where Republicans dominated the November midterms and the state's only Democratic senator went down in defeat, conservative towns like Marianna - along with farm communities in the South and Midwest, and towns across the country that depend on tourism revenue from scaled-back national parks - will help measure the solidity of public support for Trump and his decision to wager some of the operations of the federal government on a border wall with Mexico.

Jim Dean, Marianna's city manager, said he had already been concerned, even before the shutdown, that the hurricane would prompt public agencies to consider reducing their footprint in the region. What if an extended shutdown contributed to keeping the prison closed indefinitely?

"I worry about the government pulling out of rural America," he said.

This, after all, is one of many towns across the country where private industries are few and the federal government is intimately connected to livelihoods. Wedged near the border with Alabama and Georgia, Marianna's 7,000 residents depend on the federal medium-security prison to employ nearly 300 people in good-paying jobs with attractive benefits.

The prison once housed Lynette Fromme - a Charles Manson disciple, known as Squeaky, who tried to assassinate former President Gerald Ford - as well as members of a spy ring known as the Cuban Five.

And the prison is not the only federal benefactor. The US Department of Agriculture provides crucial assistance to farmers, many of whom plant cotton or peanuts, or raise cattle.

"The US Department of Agriculture office is currently closed, due to the lapse in federal government funding," read a printout taped to the door of a local USDA office Friday. "The office will reopen once funding is restored."

The phone rang occasionally in the office next door. A federal worker who was working without pay patiently explained to frustrated callers that no, she could not connect them to the person they needed to talk to, because that employee was furloughed for the shutdown.

Dean recently received a letter from the Bureau of Prisons assuring city officials that the bureau would pay its utility bills, though the payments might be slow to arrive.

But prison workers were facing trouble even before the partial government shutdown. At least two-thirds of the Marianna staff members suffered hurricane damage to their homes, according to prison managers. The local prison officers' union estimated that 10 per cent of its affected members experienced total property losses.

Charles Jones, 32, a corrections officer and vice president of the union, said he and his wife were expecting their first child next month. "Because of the storm, I've already had to defer a payment here and there for my car," he said. "Those are the basic things that we're trying to do."

Robert Richards, 33, returned from a monthlong stint in Mississippi the day after the shutdown began. He said he was owed about US$2,500 in expenses. "We're tired of being put in the middle," he said.

Though Trump said on Twitter over the weekend that "most of the workers not getting paid are Democrats," that is far from true in places like Jackson County, Florida, where Marianna is the county seat.

It is a Republican bastion so deeply conservative that it was illegal to sell liquor by the drink until November 2017. The president and his plan for a wall along the border are popular here, as they are across much of the state, which might explain why Florida Republicans in Congress have done little to pressure party leaders in the Senate to put an end to the shutdown.


"Everybody I talk to wants the wall," James Grover, 72, a car salesman from nearby Blountstown, said over breakfast Saturday at the Waffle Iron, a diner on Route 90 that opens six days a week even though its facade, destroyed by the hurricane, is temporarily made up of plastic sheeting and plywood.

Few prison guards interviewed levelled any criticism at the president or his border policy, instead blaming the impasse on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have failed to reach any agreement.

"You can point fingers at both sides," said Jason Griffin, 44. "I point fingers at everyone. If they want to get something done, they can."

Vinzant, the union president, said he believed a wall was necessary because he trusted fellow public employees who work for the Border Patrol. "Those guys will sit there and say, 'We need help,'" he said. "So I have to agree with it. We don't have a choice."

But that solidarity does not make the prison officers' situation any easier, especially since they face an added stress: The Bureau of Prisons as a general condition of employment requires that its workers pay their debts in a timely fashion. Failure to do so can result in discipline.

"I hate the shutdown," said Joseph Sims, 37, a corrections officer of six years. "Sometimes you've got to do stuff to get stuff done," he said of Trump's stance, "but now it's starting to take a toll on everybody at work."

On Saturday, Sims stood in his living room as his wife, Melissa Sims, a prison nurse, prepared to hug their 3-year-old twins before embarking on the nearly seven-hour drive to work for two weeks in Mississippi.

"Mummy's got to go bye-bye," she told her son, Eli, who shrieked: "No! You can't!" "Oh my gosh, don't make me cry," said Melissa Sims, 39.

The day after she is scheduled to return, her husband will have to leave for Yazoo City himself, so they will hardly see each other. And the shutdown seems likely to delay repairs at the Marianna prison, which workers fear will remain effectively closed for at least a year.

"We can handle a month or two, but if it gets much longer than that, I'm going to look for another job - a job in the private sector," Melissa Sims said of working without pay.

She blamed Trump for the shutdown, a point on which she disagreed with her husband and most of her colleagues. "This definitely is making me more political than I have been in the past," Sims said. She has been researching how Congress passes budget bills.

"My stance is that if there's a wall, they're going to find a way to get past it - legal or not," Sims said.

"I believe there should be a barrier," her husband countered.

A few miles away, another prison employee, Crystal Minton, accompanied her fiancé to a friend's house to help clear the remnants of a metal roof mangled by the hurricane. Minton, a 38-year-old secretary, said she had obtained permission from the warden to put off her Mississippi duty until early February because she is a single mother caring for disabled parents. Her fiancé plans to take vacation days to look after Minton's 7-year-old twins once she has to go to work.

The shutdown on top of the hurricane has caused Minton to rethink a lot of things.

"I voted for him, and he's the one who's doing this," she said of Trump. "I thought he was going to do good things. He's not hurting the people he needs to be hurting."