MILLEN - When Corrections Corporation of America built a private prison just outside Millen, officials hailed it as a boon to Jenkins County's economy, then suffering from unemployment hovering near 20 percent.
Two years after the 1,250-bed, medium- and minimum-security Jenkins Correctional Center received its first inmates, Jenkins County's unemployment rate has improved to 14 percent. With virtually all boats rising post-recession, that May rate remained the second-highest among Georgia's 159 counties.
But the prison, which became operational in March 2012, has created 205 jobs ranging from custodial staff and regular corrections officers to full-time slots for a doctor, dentist and in-house education principal.
In addition, after spending $57 million to build the facility, CCA now pays more than $450,000 annually in property taxes, a potential point of envy to counties that host prisons owned by the state of Georgia and operated by its Department of Corrections, which are tax-exempt.
But what Mandy Underwood, the executive director of the Jenkins County Development Authority, sees as most important is the effect the prisons' employees have when they spend their money. Millen's first McDonald's opened in May; a unique local restaurant, Honey's Café, debuted after the prison opened; and Underwood observes that Millen's other three or four restaurants are now packed at lunch.
"The local merchants, the local mom-and-pop stores that struggled to survive during the recession, they are now on top of things," Underwood said. "They're now making money and you're seeing these people in there eating and you know they work at the prison because they've got on their uniforms."
The prison is not the only development bringing new hope to Millen's stores, gas stations and eateries. Carbo Ceramics, which makes ceramic pellets used in petroleum extraction, has completed the first phase of a plant that was announced to create at least 75 permanent jobs. Meanwhile, Robins & Morton, the construction company building the Carbo plant, has about 200 workers on the job, Underwood said.
South Carolina-based Geechee Energy announced in March that it will build a wood fuel pellet plant at Millen, expected to create another 50-70 jobs.
But Jenkins Correctional Center is now Jenkins County's largest privately owned permanent employer. It has an annual payroll of about $6.5 million.
"I guess staff probably spend as much or more locally than the facility does, in the restaurants, on gas, having work done on vehicles and such stuff as that in the course of the day," said Jenkins Correctional Center Warden Ralph Kemp.
The prison does as much purchasing locally as it can, he said, acknowledging that CCA handles some purchasing on a national basis.
But hiring is done locally, and the prison staff members participate regularly in job fairs in the region, such as the Eighth Annual Career Expo that was held June 26 at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.
The prison also participates in job fairs with Ogeechee Technical College and Georgia Southern University and at military bases.
"We try to make all of them in about a 50-mile radius," Kemp said.
More than half of those 205 jobs are held by correctional officers. But, in addition to the doctor and dentist, some other professionals on staff are nine nurses, nine caseworkers, addiction and rehabilitation counselors, and several academic and vocational teachers, including a plumbing instructor. There's a six-member maintenance team, and a safety and sanitation officer.
CCA operates the prison on contract to the Georgia Department of Corrections, but just one Corrections Department employee, called an onsite contract monitor, works at the prison on a regular basis, said the prison's public information officer, Chris Hobbs. All other employees work for CCA.
They are trained to the same standards as Department of Corrections, and sometimes receive additional training, Kemp said. The correctional officers, like those employed by the state, take basic training Peace Officer Standards & Training facilities.
Taxes and utilities
In an email answering questions about the prison's economic impact, Corrections Corporation of America stated that last year the Jenkins Correctional Center provided $995,000 in "utility use and fees," spent about $620,000 locally for goods and services and paid approximately $543,000 in property taxes.
Interviewed separately, Jenkins County interim Tax Commissioner Tina Burke calculated that CCA paid $460,747 in 2013 property tax. This followed an appeal and adjustment of the valuation on the main prison property from $65.9 million to slightly under $46.5 million, now shown as the 2014 value in a searchable database for the Jenkins County Assessors' Office.
By either total, the prison is a major revenue source for Jenkins County and its school system.
"We pay property taxes whereas state facilities don't," said Kemp. "That's a big boon for the community."
Although the county commissioners have not reduced the property tax millage with the infusion of revenue from the prison, they haven't had to raise the rate or trim services, Jenkins County Administrator Grady Saxon said.
"It has had a major impact on the economy," he said. "It's created a good addition to the tax base and provided some jobs for local citizens as well."
Tattnall County, home to three state-owned prisons - Georgia State Prison, Smith State Prison and Rogers State Prison - receives no impact fees or other payments in lieu of taxes. The prisons' property amounts to about 10,000 acres with probably $100 million worth of buildings, observed Tattnall County Manager Frank Murphy.
"We are proud of the jobs, and it's part of our infrastructure, but if it was private-owned, that would be almost half of our budget in taxes," Murphy said.
Jenkins Correctional Center is one of four privately owned prisons operated under contract to the Georgia Department of Corrections.