Prison given brief reprieve

Tampa Bay Tribune reports:

Hillsborough Correctional Institution is the only faith- and character-based prison for women in Florida. It was set to close last week.

TAMPA — Closing down a prison, it seems, takes a lot more time and effort than anticipated.
Florida Department of Corrections officials, who had announced in January that the lights would be
turned off for good at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution by last week, now say it’ll be July 1
before the joint is mothballed.

Volunteers have pitched impassioned arguments to keep the 35-year-old faith- and character-based
prison running. They are viewing the delayed closure with hope, though they know the end probably is near.

“It’s still closing,” said corrections department spokeswoman Ann Howard, who would not say officially how many of the female inmates had been transferred to other facilities, though prison volunteers say more than two-thirds of the population remain there. Nor would Howard say how many of the facility’s 115 workers had accepted jobs offered at other institutions.

“We don’t discuss transfers until they are firmly in place,” she said. “There still are inmates there. We can’t discuss how many or where they are headed. The same holds for the staff.”

The announcement in January shocked the prison’s support system, made up of more than 300
volunteers, mostly retirees from nearby Sun City Center. They mentor, teach and counsel the female inmates.

Their involvement made the prison unique, they say, and resulted in a recidivism rate below 10 percent, though Department of Corrections officials say those calculations aren’t necessarily reliable.

Initial plans released in January called for all the inmates to be transferred and all the staff to be
reassigned by last Thursday.

“We only gave estimated dates as to when we would start moving staff and inmates,” Howard said. “We knew it would be quite an endeavor transferring inmates and employees. We do have to have this done before beginning of next fiscal year,” which for the state is July 1.

The department is closing about a dozen prisons statewide because of a declining prison population. The state has about 12,000 empty prison beds.

Hillsborough Correctional Institution is one of four faith- and character-based prisons in Florida and the only one for women.

A state analysis last year that ranked prisons on various categories criticized Hillsborough Correctional Institution for having a high cost per inmate, high maintenance costs and a low inmate population. The capacity was increased last year, though no inmates were transferred in.

The Department of Corrections has said it needs to cut $64 million from its operating budget, and
shutting down the prison in Riverview will save $8.3 million a year.

The cause to save the prison drew the support of state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who had chaired the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, which sets prison budgets.

In January, Fasano vowed to keep the prison open and also fought GOP legislation to privatize dozens of prisons in South Florida, a proposal that eventually failed.

Within two weeks of Fasano speaking out, he was relieved of his chairmanship of the committee by
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who said he had lost confidence in Fasano’s willingness to cut
government costs.

Diocese of St. Petersburg prison ministries director Peter André said about a dozen diocesan ministry
workers are assigned to Hillsborough Correctional Institution and are fighting to keep the prison open.

“It’s an experiment that is working,” he said. “The recidivism rate is lower here than anywhere else in
the state. That’s how to save money on prisons: keep people out of them.”

He called the decision to shutter the prison “short-sighted” and recalled how the volunteers mounted a similar fight last year and prevailed over some legislators who wanted to shutter the facility. Though, it appears to be a lost cause now, he said, volunteers remain hopeful.

“I sense more determination this time around,” he said. “I am hoping they see it our way one more time. We’ll see. I haven’t given up hope. We’re not going down without at least doing our best.”

Nancy Williams is a volunteer at the forefront of the fight to keep the facility open.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Williams, who refers to the inmates as “ladies.” During the past month and a half, volunteers watched Tallahassee closely as legislators went back and forth about funding the prison for at least one more year. In the end, the funding was pulled, Williams said.

Still, she said, staff and inmates have not given up fighting for a last-minute reprieve.

She said 231 inmates remain at the facility. Inmates transferred out included those with special medical issues and others who went to work-release programs.

She said volunteers hope someone will come forward to save the facility.

“The key word here is passion,” she said. “We’re a little lighthouse that works. We’re small; we don’t
have teeth, but we’ve got hope.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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