County agrees to look into transforming the former Bay City Work Camp into a rehabilitation facility

Sheriff A.J. Smith appealed to county commissioners Tuesday morning to back creation of a drug rehabilitation facility in Franklin County, possibly at the long-shuttered Bay City Work Camp west of Apalachicola.

They supported the concept of creating one, somewhere, and empowered County Coordinator Michael Moron and County Attorney Michael Shuler to investigate what it could take to turn that former state correctional site, which once housed as many as 300 inmates but closed in July 2013 and has been abandoned since, into a place where local people could permanently abandon their drug-ravaged lives.

The commissioners cautioned, though, that preliminary support for creating a facility did not signal any sort of funding commitment.

Smith, who has talked of the need for such a facility since not long after being elected in Nov. 2016, advocated for a way to address the pressing need for drug rehab. He also made clear he was not wedded to details of any particular plan, other than to have somewhere people could go, long-term, other than jail for help.

“It’s a community issue, it’s a community problem,” he said, accompanied by a Power Point presentation that detailed the need, the limited possibilities and initial success of what so far has been available, and a rough outline of what options exist to create a permanent facility.

“It’s a nationwide problem, it’s not just here. We’re not the only ones dealing with this,” Smith said, stressing that up to 90 percent of all the inmates who pass through the doors of the county jail, are there because of drugs, or some drug-related crime.

Of all the drug crazes, such as crack cocaine, he’s seen in years of law enforcement, methamphetamine “is the worst. It erodes their mind and their body,” Smith said. “There’s probably no one in this room who doesn’t have somebody who’s affected by drugs.”

One man who stepped forward to share how drugs have affected his life was Apalachicola resident Curtis Allen, who rose, twice, to speak at the outset of the meeting in support of the ideas Smith would unveil minutes later.

“I have a son in jail,” he said. “My heart hurts every day.

“They sit there from 8 to 5 and then they stay up all night long. When they get out, they have a drug-jail atmosphere,” he said. “We need to put these kids to work, get them up in the morning. If we can’t put our money for our children, what are we here for?

“Let’s help the kids of Franklin County. Let’s try to support these kids out there in the jail,” Allen said.

After noting that “I really don’t want to be in the rehab business,” Smith went on to describe how individuals sober up in jail, and some then want their drug days to end, but that the road to recovery washes out after they’re set free.

“We’ve got to have a different place to put those people. If we help these people get better, we’re going to eliminate a multitude of problems,” Smith said, reciting a list that included thefts, domestic violence and other crimes.

“If we can take some of these people and get them into a long-term inpatient program, we can turn their lives around. There’s four generations of drug abusers in this community. If we’re going to stop this drug addiction in our county, we have to have a place for these people to go,” said the sheriff.

He said it can take up to a week, for medical screening and arranging financing and transportation, to get an addict into a short-term facility west of Panama City, north to Tallahassee and beyond, and that’s subject to availability.

“Sometimes the bed may be available that day, or it may be a week and a half,” Smith said, noting the need in Franklin was similar to that of surrounding rural Big Bend counties, each which also lacks a drug rehab facility.

“Nobody here has insurance, nobody has money to go to Palm Beach and spend $10,000 a month,” he said.

He showed slides that documented some initial success the Fresh Start and other faith-based programs have had within the jail, as well as with some graduates who have moved on to re-entry houses in Panama City and Charleston. He said 33 people have applied for help since 2017, with three graduations.

“They may go through rehab three or four times. If it takes 10 times, I’m good with it,” Smith said. “It’s such a horrific and terrible drug the way it grabs hold of people. It’s amazing the transformation that you see.

“None of this can happen if we don’t have a structure where we can put people in,” he said. “They’ve got to have a job and got to have a place to live.”

Smith said he’s talked with staff about putting up buildings on land behind the jail - two basic dormitories, each complete with bunks, kitchen, bath and day room, with an estimated costs of about $400,000 per building.

“It is still a lot of money to build something,” he said. “Nobody wants a rehab center in their neighborhood. That’s not something that’s feasible.”

Smith said the work camp “is kind of run down, it’s been sitting a long time. The buildings are built for just what we’re wanting to do.

“People could come in and help with vocational training,” he said. “Part of this dorm would be for people who finish the program but don’t have a place to live. Put them up for six months, and help them save their money so that they can get stabilized and be out and be on their own.”

Smith did not provide an overall cost estimate, but said he could be asking for as many as six additional full-time employees, at a total cost of about $46,000 each.

“If I can find other ways to fund it, I’m glad to use some of the staff. There’s money out there but we’re not going to get it if I don’t ask for it,” he said, citing a possible request for funding from the Florida Legislature or from the Triumph Fund.

He said one donor not long ago gave $50,000 to the sheriff’s charitable fund, and there are others from across the country, with ties to the area, who would step forward. “To some people a million dollars is nothing,” he said.

After seconding Commissioner Ricky Jones’ motion to explore the costs associated with fixing up the former work camp and making it compliant with state health regulations, Smokey Parish addressed the funding issue.

“I think we all understand the drug issues,” he said. “Under the current circumstances the county does not have the money; we cannot fund it. If the federal and state governments can’t help us solve the problem, there’s no way Franklin County can pay for drug rehab.

“Our budget is $11 million and the sheriff’s office gets half of that already,” Parish said. “This county cannot beat this problem because we don’t have the funding to do that. We do have something (land) to contribute, but we do not have monetary dollars to put forward.

“There’s no way rural communities across the country can deal with this themselves. They don’t have the assets,” he said.

Commissioner Bert Boldt praised Smith for being able to generate grant funds for his department. “He’s made $1.25 out of every $1 we’ve given him,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity regionally for you to be able to lobby colleagues all around the region to contribute money. We don’t have to facilitate this process alone.”

Smith also secured a vote of unanimous support to look into the cost of clearing trees off about a half-dozen acres adjacent to the jail, to be transformed into a garden where inmates can work.

“I have guys and gals in the jail that need something to do,” Smith said.