Jail closing Frustrates Hillsborough by Steve Bousquet

Posted: March 28, 2012 in News and politics

You’d think the news that Florida needs fewer prisons would be cause for celebration.

But not in Hillsborough County.

Instead, this is a time of frustration and despair for many people connected to Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview.

The only Florida prison with a faith- and character-based curriculum exclusively for female inmates is closing permanently.

Inmates are being shipped 100 miles north to Lowell, a prison in Ocala, and correctional officers have been given jobs at various prisons, some as much as 80 miles away.

With gas costing nearly $4 a gallon, that’s a hardship for low-paid prison workers, who just got a chilling reminder of the dangerous nature of their work: An officer was killed on duty at a prison in Lake City Sunday.

The debt-ridden state Department of Corrections, facing a $79 million flood of red ink and stuck with 12,000 empty prison beds, is closing six prisons, including Hillsborough, which was ranked last based on state criteria such as cost-per-inmate, maintenance expenses and space at nearby prisons.

Lowell is an all-women’s prison that has an entire dorm that’s new and empty, with plenty of room to continue the faith-based programs. That made the decision to close Hillsborough a no-brainer at corrections headquarters.

But in its pursuit of cost savings, Hillsborough’s advocates say, the state sacrificed something a lot more valuable than money: a dedicated prison staff, volunteers who are generous with their time and inmates who are among the least likely in the system to commit new crimes.

But HCI’s low recidivism rate was not among the criteria used to decide which prisons lived or died.

Lawmakers who support the prison ordered it kept open at a cost of nearly $10 million a year. But in the end, the executioner was Sen. JD Alexander, the Senate budget chairman, who made most key final budget decisions.

He said lawmakers such as Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who demanded HCI stay open, spent money they didn’t have. In another extremely tight budget year, he overruled them.

“We all can say we like to do things. But if you don’t have the money in the budget to do it, it doesn’t really mean something,” Alexander said.

Glorioso accused Alexander of again showing his dislike of Hillsborough County, as he did during the flap over the USF Polytechnic campus.

“I knew he was going to punish HCI,” Glorioso said. “It’s a shame.”

Janet Smith, one of the many devoted HCI volunteers from the Sun City Center retirement complex, is leading a lobbying effort aimed at forcing Gov. Rick Scott to intercede and keep Hillsborough open.

“The long-term costs of this closing will be far more than the supposed $8 million in savings they claim,” Smith said. “But the cost of a higher recidivism rate will be felt statewide in repeat offenders.”

Smith said inmates are worried that the programs that have worked well to rebuild inmates’ self-esteem at HCI, such as one that teaches inmates culinary arts skills so they can get jobs at restaurants after they are released, won’t be available at Lowell.

“There is a lot of sadness and despair at HCI,” Smith said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached bousquet@tampabay.com.

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