With 134 homes, 87 mobile homes and 52 apartments, Starke is a curious town of 56 hundred in one of Florida's most dangerous prison belts, "a community within a community" where correctional employees keep quiet about their instant city on suspiciously unmapped prison real estate. Video
By Jackelyn Barnard
First Coast News
STARKE, FL -- It's a small, country town where people know people and look out for one another. "I love the people. I really like the town," says one person who lives there.
56 hundred people call Starke home. It's a place so quiet, there hasn't been a murder in three years, but ask anyone here and they will tell you murder is their big business.
"The prisons. That's where everybody works when you talk to them," says Iris Johnson, who lives in Starke.
In the western shadows of Starke, down State Road 16, are some of Florida's most violent criminals. Here, the state runs half a dozen prison facilities.
In all, more than 5,100 inmates a population about as big as Starke.
Just outside of the razor sharp wires is a community within a community. When First Coast News tried to get pictures of this place from the sky, the prisons went on lockdown and our crews were ordered to the ground, even though we were not breaking any laws.
Down on the ground is what you own. Homes with white picket fences, satellite dishes and swimming pools.
It looks like your normal neighborhood, but you won't find this place on any map. The county property appraiser doesn't even have a record of it.
In this secret community, some streets have names, others do not. When we plugged in one street name, mapquest said it doesn't exist.
The Department of Corrections says this community is staff housing for the prisons. There are 134 homes, 87 mobile homes and 52 apartments.
The rent starts at $50 a month. The lawns are personally cut by the prisoners. First Coast News cameras found prisoners cutting grass right up to the front door of these homes.
In some cases, taxpayers pay for the water and electricity.
Anyone has access to this place, our cameras caught a school bus dropping off kids. There is no sign saying keep out. So, First Coast News went in and when we did, we were immediately stopped. "This is state property...this is all state property, you have to have permission from one of the wardens to take pictures," says one correctional officer. We told the officer First Coast News attorney's advised us we were allowed to be on the public road and as long as we stayed on the road, we were allowed to be in the area. The officer replied, "This is state property....this is state property, this is all state property."
According to the Department of Corrections' website, staff housing is to enhance security and the response in emergencies by having key employees around during their off hours. The Department's website says the staff housing is, "based upon the best interests of the institution."
According to the website, only certain people can live in the housing. The priority line goes like this-- 1. the Superintendent, 2. the Assistant Superintendent, 3.Chief Correctional Officer, 4. Institution Investigator, 5. Medical Representative, 6. Maintenance, 7. Correctional Officers.
The First Coast News I-team found someone who was not on that list. Her name is Sherri Starling. She told us she was an employee at the prison. When asked in what capacity, she said, "I'm a secretary."
First Coast News has confirmed her position with the personnel office. We've also confirmed, with personnel, Starling's current husband is not an employee of the prisons.
According to a background check, Starling's ex-husband, William Hinson, once lived at the home. He is a correctional officer. The two divorced in 1999.
When we asked Starling how long she had lived in the mobile home she declined to answer. When asked why she wouldn't answer she said, "I'd rather not because I don't want to lose my house." When asked why she would lose her house, she said, "For doing something against the rules." We asked if she was doing something against the rules and she said, "By talking to you."
There's no way to know exactly who lives in each house or how long they have lived there. Again--there is no paper trail because these homes don't exist in public records.
Many of those who live out in this secret community list P.O. Boxes as their addresses.
We tried to find out how many homes taxpayers were paying utilities for, the Department of Corrections couldn't tell us and referred us to the Department of Management Services.
DMS' spokesperson told us it doesn't manage the numbers, but that the Department of Corrections does and to call Corrections back. We did and we are still waiting for our answer.
According to the Corrections' website, only the Secretary of Corrections can change rules and can alter who can live in this community and if vacant spaces are left over after priority personnel are taken care of, non-priority employees can be considered.
The website goes on to say housing agreements will end automatically if housing is needed for an employee on the priority list.
First Coast News