You’d think the closing of a state prison would come as welcome news to area residents, but that’s not the case with the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview. Citizens, legislators and inmates have been trying to convince the Department of Corrections for two years that this rural south Hillsborough County prison is not only worth saving but should be used as a model for other facilities. HCI is one of 11 state prisons and work camps slated to close by the end of June due in part to a steady drop in crime over the last two decades and a $2 billion state budget deficit.
HCI is one of five “faith and character-based” institutions, where inmates who have demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation — and are lucky enough to be accepted (there is currently a waiting list) — can choose from a wide variety of both religious and secular programs. HCI offers more than 65 programs ranging from anger management and self-esteem, to culinary arts, creative writing and art. It’s also unique as it is one of only two faith-based prisons exclusively for women. Hernando Correctional Facility in Brooksville, the other one, was only recently re-designated and has neither the breadth of programs nor the community support network of HCI.
Over 400 volunteers work with the prison ministry through nearby Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City Center. They travel from all over the Bay area to donate their time, talent and money. Since last May these volunteers, many of them retirees, have raised huge sums of cash for the prison: $5,000 to help repair a dormitory roof (repairs will be done by the inmates under the direction of an HCI volunteer who owns a roofing business); a $5,000 grant used as start-up money for a hydroponics program and to purchase material for the prison’s successful culinary program; a $500 donation for plumbing fixtures and drinking fountains for another dorm; a $1,500 electric golf cart to be used by prison maintenance and $1,500 used to buy dirt for the prison ball field. Another $5,000 grant went to fund a unique program called “Story Time Moms” which allows inmates to read and record stories onto CDs for their children. In addition, USF’s Experimental Farm, which does research to advance Florida’s food crop production, is supported by HCI labor (to the tune of $300,000). The project would be forced to shut down without the hard work of the inmates.
Sharon Whiddon chairs the Prince of Peace prison ministry. She says the goal of HCI’s program is to help foster self-confidence in the women, the majority of whom are there as a result of drug and alcohol addiction, and to equip them to “re-enter society as productive citizens with a sense of purpose.”
And re-enter they do; the success stories are as impressive as the curriculum.
One former inmate, Monique, was granted clemency from a life sentence while at HCI. In the year she has been out she’s taken her message on the road, talking to youth at schools and churches about the value of getting an education, of staying out of trouble, and the real in-your-face consequences if you don’t. During her 22 1/2 years of incarceration she has done time at all of Florida’s major women’s institutions and says none of them come close to offering what Hillsborough CI does, programs that “help you come out a better person than you went in.” She says other prisons are simply “human warehouses” with programs that look good on paper but that, in the end, no one really cares whether or not you’re ever rehabilitated.
Since Lydia’s release from HCI she has reconnected with her son and returned to her former profession as a dental hygienist and is now in the process of buying a home. Betty was in prison for 29 years, including one year spent at Hillsborough Correctional Institution. She immersed herself in classes seven days a week while there and was released in 2009. She’s now a few months away from earning an Associate’s degree in computing and after that, has her sights set on a Bachelor’s.
The DOC says it costs about $97 a day to house an inmate at HCI compared to $63 a day at Hernando CI, but that number is based on a current head count of 268 inmates, well below the facility’s 486-inmate capacity. Supporters say adding just another 100 inmates would reduce that cost to a more competitive level of $67 a day. Volunteers armed with determination and calculations went before the Hillsborough County Commission last summer to ask for a variance to increase the capacity. It was overwhelmingly approved, but with a pricey caveat. The wastewater capacity for the facility would also have to be increased to comply with regulations. Sharon Whiddon says volunteers were in the process of working with Commissioners on a funding plan to present to Tallahassee legislators at the start of this year’s session when they were “blindsided” with the news of HCI’s closure, slated to begin next month.
Hillsborough CI also boasts a less than 7 percent rate of recidivism, one of the lowest in the country and almost five times lower than other state facilities. Whiddon says cost savings like these need to be factored into the Department of Corrections’ decision as to which facilities to shut down. State Senator Mike Fasano, a longtime supporter of HCI, couldn’t agree more. He says he understands the Department’s need to close some prisons (by the end of this year Florida will have an approximate surplus of 16,000 beds) but qualifies that, saying “When you see the success rate of a facility like HCI and you hear former inmates testifying about the rehabilitation they were able to get there, you don’t close a prison like that.” In fact, he says, “If anything you expand it, because in the end it’s going to save tax dollars because these former prisoners are not going through the revolving door.” Fasano is one of a host of state and local legislators, including Senators Ronda Storms and Arthenia Joyner and Representative Rich Glorioso, who’ve witnessed the success of HCI’s program. All are working diligently to secure money and support in Tallahassee to keep what they call a “model” facility open.
The threat of closure has forced the prison ministry’s future plans into limbo, like the restart of the carpentry program, in which inmates build and sell items such as picnic tables and children’s toys to raise funds for other programs. There are plans to start a fish farm and train dogs from area shelters. In collaboration with Manatee County jail, inmates have also built pens for raising hogs to be used as an additional food source. Land is another untapped resource at the rural facility, over 100 acres of it, some of which the ministry hopes to cultivate to grow fresh produce.
The 11 targeted state prison closures will potentially affect about 1,300 state workers, approximately 130 of them at Hillsborough CI. DOC Communications Director Ann Howard said employees were given forms to list their top 10 preferences for transfer, although when asked, she would not say how many would be guaranteed a new position. Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker said he’s reaching out to other state agencies to find jobs for his employees but “is not going to guarantee we can place everyone.” Even if employees do get new positions, Whiddon says the transfers will uproot the lives of children and families from their communities.
The impending closure of HCI was placed on the Hillsborough County Commission’s meeting agenda this month by Commissioner Al Higginbotham. He says long before it was a “hot topic” he’d been on board with the prison’s success after listening to the personal stories of many of the incarcerated women. He’s hoping the DOC “will take another look before making its final decision.”
In a letter addressed to State Senator Ronda Storms, chair of the Hillsborough Legislative Delegation in Tallahassee, commissioners acknowledged the “generous contribution of time and talent” of HCI’s volunteers and staff as well as its low recidivism rate. They also noted that the facility has the capacity for expansion that would greatly reduce its per diem cost (the main reason it’s on the DOC chopping block). They unanimously agreed to the “preservation and on-going, long-term financial support of Hillsborough Correctional Institution.”
Plant City Representative Rich Glorioso told CL on Sunday that the recently passed House budget contains $8 million to continue operation of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution and $2 million for maintenance costs (targeted for the required wastewater expansion). Once a Senate budget is passed, likely sometime this week, legislators will go to conference where the bartering begins. Glorioso holds a key position as chair of the House budget committee that oversees prisons, the same position held in the Senate by Mike Fasano until his ouster earlier this month by Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Fasano has been a vocal critic of both the state’s rush to privatize its prisons and the HCI closure.
Representative Glorioso said he was told that HCI would be one of the last prisons on the list to close instead of one of the first, giving lawmakers and volunteers additional time to lobby the DOC. In the words of one anonymous HCI employee (forbidden by the DOC to speak to the media), “We’re not going down without a fight.”
Lisa Marzilli is a WMNF reporter and host of the Friday edition of “Last Call.”
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