Published: Jul 20, 2011 5:13 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 20, 2011 4:13 PM EDT

MARIANNA, Fla. (AP) - To the rest of Florida, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was best known for its dark history as a place where the reformatory's guards regularly beat their charges until that practice was ended a few decades ago. But to the current residents of rural Jackson County, it was an economic engine, providing steady, decent paying jobs in a region that needs them.

But no more - the Panhandle reform school's closure last month has left most of its approximately 200 employees out of work and cut $14.5 million in annual spending from the local economy, mostly salaries. There are families in this county of 50,000 who have had several generations that spent their working lives at the reform school.

"It's just a dagger," said Shane Mercer, 50, who runs the auto body shop his father opened in 1973. "When you lose 200 jobs in a small community like this, it's tough."

The closure had nothing to do with the school's past, but with the state's present: Gov. Rick Scott was looking to cut government costs and Dozier became a target. State Rep. Marti Coley, who represents the area, said it was hard to argue to keep the reform school open when there were newer, less costly facilities elsewhere that could handle Dozier's population, which had dwindled from several hundred over the years to about 90.

"It's old," said Coley. "They showed me the numbers after they made their announcement and it is costly to maintain."

The last state unemployment report showed that 7.4 percent of Jackson County's residents are unemployed - only six of the state's 67 counties had a lower unemployment rate. A large reason, however, is because of government jobs.

"We don't have other industry. We don't have other jobs available for these employees to go to," said Coley, adding that she's talked to Scott about the problem. "We have huge job loss, what are we going to do about it? We have to bring more industry, other than state jobs, into these areas. We're ready. Bring 'em on."

Dozier opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School and for some of its history it had a reputation for brutality. In the 1950s and early 1960s, boys would be taken to a small building called The White House, where they were beaten by guards for offenses as slight as singing or talking to a black inmate. They would be hit dozens of times - sometimes more than 100 - with a wide, three-foot long leather strap that had sheet metal stuffed in the middle. Three years ago, the state put a plaque outside the long-closed building to acknowledge what had happened there.

But that was the past, residents say, and the community was proud of the school.

"The employees that were there now, the administration that was there now were working hard to help those residents better themselves and prepare themselves to return home," Coley said. "I visited and was pleased with what I saw."

One of those employees was Donald Mears, who left a city job for an $11.29-an-hour officer's position three years ago because he thought it was a career upgrade, never imagining the school could close.

Now Mears, 44, is skipping days on his high-blood pressure medicine because he doesn't know whether he'll be able to afford the pills once his state insurance benefits run out at the end of the month. He and his wife are also on food stamps.

"It's embarrassing," Mears said. "Yesterday I got two gallons of milk and a package of pork chops. I'm used to pulling out a $20 bill and paying for it."

The county has other prisons, but with belt tightening at the Department of Corrections, there's not much room to take in the former Dozier workers. The Department of Juvenile Justice said that of the 191 workers given layoff notices, six received jobs elsewhere in the department and nine were placed with other state agencies. Workers were told barely more than a month before the closing that they'd need to find new jobs, which has been particularly difficult for long-time employees who haven't had to write a resume or prepare for a job interview in 15 or more years, said Richard Williams, executive director of the Chipola Regional Workforce Development Board.

"They've never had to do this and they never thought they would," Williams said. "They've not had to ask for help to get them a job, they have not had to ask for help for benefit assistance."

About 100 of the Dozier workers have visited the One-Stop Career Center - the local unemployment office - and others have gone to the center's website seeking help. Lloyd Mills, a counselor at the reform school, has been stopping in regularly. After retiring from the Army, Mills began working at the school 11 years ago. At age 52, he has no idea where he's going to find work in the area. He's angry that only a month's notice was given.

"If you're going to close, give us more warning for that. That was not enough time for people who have been out there 10, 12, 20 years to tell them 'Wham! In 30 days, you're gone,'" Mills said. "That's not fair. Nobody should be treated like that."

The emphasis on cutting government positions under Scott and the Republican Legislature has other people in the county worried, especially after seeing what happened to Dozier.

"When the Legislature meets, you keep your fingers crossed. You pray that you make it," said Donnie Edenfield, 40, who has been a probation officer in Marianna for 18 years.

The jobs that are available often don't pay as much as the state jobs lost and many don't have benefits, Williams said. Still, many people are taking whatever they can find.

"One job, low pay and I have a stack of applications here that is two inches think," Williams said of a recent job opportunity that came into the employment center.

While it will take weeks or months for the full affect to hit businesses around the community, Mercer said he's already seen people having to make tough choices. At his auto business, it means car owners are wondering whether they can afford to pay an insurance deductible after a collision.

"I had a customer the other day who said she had to make a decision between fixing her car and feeing her children, and she was one of the ones that was laid off," Mercer said. "There's pressure. There's a lot of people hurting right now."

(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)