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Questions abound over controversial correctional facility closing

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image Nancy Williams

Citing prospective multi-million dollar savings, Florida’s DOC announced the 35-year-old facility would be shuttered.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Devastated inmates, distraught staff, anxious volunteers and a whole prison yard full of unanswered questions are churning in the wake of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution’s proposed closing here.

Citing prospective multi-million dollar savings, Florida’s Department of Corrections last week announced publicly and to those incarcerated in, working at and volunteering for the unique prison that the 35-year-old facility would be shuttered by June 30 as part of a consolidation move.

The department promises that the 300 or so female inmates will be transferred to other similar institutions, that staff members will be absorbed into similar jobs at installations in surrounding counties and that the volunteer corps can travel to other locations. The vacated 134-acre site is to be padlocked and left unused, at least in the near term.

This week, a delegation of volunteers, both passionate about their service and outspoken about its impacts, recounted their HCI story to the Florida Senate’s Crime and Justice Appropriations Committee in Tallahassee and presented written statements from more than 100 inmates about the value of their “faith based, character building” program which makes HCI unique among prisons.

The delegation returned to South Hillsborough making plans for conference calls set for late in the week with the office of Gov. Rick Scott and DOC Secretary Edwin Buss, encouraged by a committee apparently interested in DOC review of the situation.

And, nearly everyone has questions which are going unanswered; questions about the real dollar savings to be realized, about the real recidivism rates at HCI, about impacts on women in the process of turning their lives around with a program they will not be able to access elsewhere, plus dozens more. What answers do exist also are disputed.

HCI, given a Riverview address by the U.S. Postal Service but actually located on C.R. 672 immediately west of Balm, was opened in 1976 under another name as a medium security prison for youthful first offenders. In the mid-1980s, it was designated a prison for adult males, including those convicted of capital crimes such as rape and murder, and in ’94 again used for young offenders 14 to 18 years of age. The facility was established as incarceration for women in 2004.

The non-denominational faith and character-building program installed there is the only one for women in the state. According to the DOC website, there are three others in the state, all for men.

HCI’s female inmates have access to a range of vocational training: culinary arts and commercial foods, carpentry, computer use, sewing. The opportunities for cultural enrichment include instruction in drawing and fine art, creative writing, library arts. There can be classes in anger management, parenting, wellness education, building self-esteem, escaping domestic violence, making appropriate life decisions. There are competitive athletic teams that build confidence and encourage fitness. There are worship services and religious education opportunities.

It adds up to lives literally turned around, says Dr. Ken Barringer, retired clinical psychologist and one of the 400 or so volunteers. Like most in the HCI volunteer corps, Barringer lives in Sun City Center and regularly leads classes at the prison for inmates on subjects that allow them to examine their previous lives and to make better choices for their futures. It’s a program that works, a fact proven by the 6.7 percent recidivism rate, far below the rate at other institutions in the 30 percent ranges, he notes. And, it’s on the verge of being lost, he adds sadly, to the detriment of the inmates, the prison system, the society at large as well as the volunteers who value giving back.

“The closure,” Barringer asserts, “means the inmates will be transferred to other places where there is no faith-based program, no character building classes, little, if any, skill training classes that are a staple where we are now. The inmates are devastated, the staff is distraught, and the volunteers are very anxious about losing their very helpful role.”

Paula Lipski, another SCC retiree and softball enthusiast, echoes the sentiment. Lipski helps coordinate sports activities at HCI, frequently bringing a team of SCC female 50-year-olds to the facility for competitions with the inmate teams. She talks of the fast-on-the-field 20 and 30 somethings and how much her teams enjoy “seeing them up, cheering, working together.”

Yet, Saturday could be their last game…forever. With the inmates relocated and the retirees out of touch, the mutually beneficial connections will be broken for all time. “It’s very sad for all of us,” Lipski says, “we feel like we give them a lift and they are so appreciative.”

Like most in the HCI volunteer corps, Nancy Williams is an active retiree eager to teach, to inspire, to mentor women whose crimes range from the drug-related to manslaughter. She’s been doing all of that at HCI since 2004 and she’s convinced beyond all doubt that the faith and character building program for women prisoners is the key to returning them to constructive lives, most forsaking crime when released. She cites the low return rate. And, she’s incensed that it could be summarily ended, sending the HCI inmates back to Lowell, a women’s prison in the northern part of the state, denying them the life-altering chances for change.

Williams was among the delegation of volunteers who drove to the state capital Monday morning to tell Senators Mike Fasano and Ronda Storms and Althenia Joyner, among others, about the HCI successes. So were Monique Baker and Wendy Harris, former inmates, now released, who have become advocates. They carried with them statements from 126 present inmates who, in their own words, described what HCI has meant to them.

The committee members, Williams says, “did not know about HCI and its programs. It was news to them.”

Also appearing before the committee, on behalf of DOC, was Daniel G. Ronay, chief deputy secretary for the department. In an email to the volunteers early Monday morning, Ronay states that during the previous weekend he toured six facilities around the Tampa area. He also states “All aspects of the Faith and Character Based programming at Hillsborough will be replicated in those facilities that receive Hillsborough offenders.”

Ronay’s email touches on questioned points. He acknowledged when asked that he did not try to visit HCI — on the DOC closure list — during his weekend tour in the Tampa area, Williams notes. And, DOC Spokesperson Gretl Plessinger told The Observer early in the week that the department does not have the faith and character program replicated in another facility for the HCI inmates to move into. The department is working on it, she added, and could have an announcement at week’s end.

On other points Ronay and Plessinger agreed. HCI, they said, presents one of the highest per inmate, per diem costs in the penal system - over $97 per day. Plessinger also said closing HCI will save $77 million a year. The facility has nearly 1,000 inmate beds, she added, but only about 300 are being utilized.

When it comes to money and HCI, both Ronay’s and Plessinger’s positions are disputed. Barringer suggests that at least part of the dollar concerns actually may involve some of the structures on the HCI campus which are aging to the point of major repairs. Some, for example, need new roofs, he notes, and DOC may not want to undertake such extensive structural remediation. Barringer also points to another aspect: the new county sewer line recently installed along C.R. 672 in front of the prison campus. In other times, the facility simply would have been connected to the new piping without charge, the psychologist adds, but today Hillsborough County wants to be compensated for a connection the state department simply does not want to shoulder.

And Williams questions Plessinger’s figures related to recidivism.

The return rate at HCI actually is 14 percent, the spokesperson said. In reply, Williams wonders aloud where such a figure has come from and reiterates the 6.7 percent recidivism is based on the prison’s own figures.

Williams has a number of other unanswered issues on her mind. She wonders about the cost of a large warehouse recently completed on the soon-to-be- abandoned HCI campus, about the money put into the “beautifully furnished and designed Warden’s facility” built just three years ago and about an institution labeled “too old and too expensive” but never visited by the people doing the labeling.

Where, she asks, will inmates from Bradenton and Pinellas go for medical treatments and who will do the work at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research Center formerly done by inmates and what will local law enforcement agencies do without the certified firing range when HCI is shuttered.

Then, she raises the matter of the woman who was relocated to HCI because she was sexually abused by a corrections officer at Lowell. How will she be protected when returned there, Williams asks rhetorically, in view of the DOC mission statement which calls for” proper care” taken of all inmates.

Plessinger was unable to answer several questions from The Observer. Asked for the specific last date of HCI’s operation, she responded “June 30” and when asked if volunteers then could work until that date, she replied she did not know. And, when asked whether the HCI site could be converted to a privatized prison operation or utilized for another purpose, she could say only that it is the property of the DOC.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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