Inmate road crews will disappear with closing of 60-year-old prison

This is the warden's house at the Big Pine Prison in 1957. The prison bbecame known as the Big Pine Road Prison.
This is the warden's house at the Big Pine Prison in 1957. The prison bbecame known as the Big Pine Road Prison.

The prison doors will slam shut for good at a Lower Keys penitentiary this spring after seven decades.

The Big Pine Key Road Prison at 450 Key Deer Blvd., a 64-bed minimum-security facility housing 60 inmates, is set to close in April after falling onto a list of prisons statewide in need of serious upgrades. It has been open since 1957.

According to Ashley Cook, press secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, infrastructure upgrades were projected in excess of $1 million. State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, confirmed the number and said sewer system hookups were one of the main reasons costs outweighed the benefit of keeping the prison open.

Raschein said she had two concerns after hearing about the prison closing: Its workers finding new jobs and the future of the prison’s road program. Inmates assigned to the prison are minimum-custody, approved to work in the community, and they maintain a large portion of U.S. 1 throughout the Florida Keys.

The state-owned 10.17-acre prison property is leased to the Florida Department of Transportation. A contract between the DOT and Infrastructure Corporation of America to oversee the maintenance has been in place for more than 15 years at an annual rate of $630,000. Now, DOT will perform the maintenance work, Raschein said.

Those duties have included asphalt and sidewalk repair, mowing, weed control, tree trimming and litter removal, among other things.

“These inmates have been invaluable to us,” said Daniel Samess, chief executive of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce, adding the prisoners have helped set up and break down events like the city’s Seafood Festival. “Even more importantly than our events, any time there is road debris or roadkill, they’re out there cleaning trash off the side of the road.”

After the prison closes, Cook said the inmates will be transported to other Florida facilities.

As for the staff of 24 security guards, a secretary and a food service supervisor, she said they’ll be able to find jobs elsewhere but did not specify where.

Raschein said she spoke with Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and Administrator Roman Gastesi.

“The Department of Corrections is willing to find other agencies to hire these employees, maybe on the mainland, and the sheriff has some openings,” she said.

The future of the building and surrounding land remains up in the air but Raschein said “it’d be an excellent location for some workforce housing.”

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219