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Correctional facility is on elected officials’ radar

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A campaign to keep open the prison for women here has captured the attention of elected officials.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM — A campaign to keep open the unique but aging state prison for women here has captured the close attention of elected local and state officials.

The 35-year-old facility on a 134-acre campus abutting C.R. 672 west of Balm currently is scheduled by Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to close by June 30. The prospective closure is said to be part of new Gov. Rick Scott’s massive, statewide slate of close and eliminate, reduce and consolidate cost-cutting moves.

Both volunteers and inmates, however, are protesting the pending closure. In addition to potential loss for inmates of the beneficial faith and character building programs operating at the prison, their disagreement is based on a range of disputed factors including money, recidivism and management of structural repair needs at the facility.

Their positions have registered with both Hillsborough County commissioners and Sen. Ronda Storms in whose district the facility is located. Storms also sits on a Florida Senate appropriations committee which has been considering closure proposals and to which a volunteer- inmate contingent appealed last month.

The seven-member Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously during its April 4 meeting to support a motion offered by Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state legislator. Crist’s motion succinctly calls for pursuing “all available options for keeping Hillsborough Correctional Institution open.”

And later in the week Storms’ top+ aide, Audie Canney, accompanied Daniel Ronay, DOC assistant secretary, during his first tour of the facility his department listed for elimination. The tour demonstrated the several “issues” at the facility that require remediation, but also opened the door to first steps in that direction, Canney indicated this week.

One of the problems to be resolved relates to inmate population numbers and the property zoning, she noted. The inmate number presently is capped at 300 on site, yet for the institution to be viable, the number of inmates – presently about 290 - should be increased by about 75, Canney added. Doing so, though, would trigger rezoning of the site, a process often spanning months.

In order to meet the June 30 deadline imposed by DOC, Storms’ office began working with county personnel to utilize a streamlining procedure known as the “personal appearance,” which takes the rezoning matter directly to the BOCC. The DOC has filed the necessary petition and, Canney said, it now is anticipated the rezoning will be considered by the commission on June 6 or 7, three weeks before the slated facility closure date.

Another issue involves needed structural repairs, Canney said. For example, roofs on two presently unoccupied dormitory buildings have failed, creating water leaks and possibly mold, she noted. DOC may be unable to undertake the reconstruction, but, she suggested, “if the materials were to be donated, the labor would be free, provided by inmates.”

One more issue is connection of the facility’s wastewater disposal system to a new county sewer line constructed along C.R. 672, in order to accommodate increased volume produced by added inmates. Rather than incur the considerable expense of a county line connection, why not increase the current irrigation volume on more of the campus acreage at a vastly reduced cost, Canney queried.

It is the money to keep and maintain HCI that DOC personnel point to first when discussing the potential closure. Department spokespersons have put the per-inmate daily cost to the state at $97, higher than most other facilities. Shutting the prison down would save an estimated $7.5 million annually, a DOC spokesman said this week.

But that’s not the full financial picture, said Nancy Williams, a Sun City Center retiree who has been leading classes and mentoring inmates at HCI for years. Williams, who took the case for keeping HCI open to both state legislators and county commissioners, said this week she has documentation showing that inmate work crews from the prison save the county and state more than $525,000 a year. The information was generated within the prison system itself, she added.

 HCI inmates regularly form crews which perform various types of work free of charge at such sites as the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, a University of Florida/IFAS experimental agriculture installation east of Balm, Williams pointed out.

Janet Smith, also a volunteer, added that other aspects of the financial balance sheet are the goods ranging from aprons, book bags and chair covers to puppets, greeting cards and bookmarks that inmates create in sewing and craft workshops on the compound. In a recent six-week period these inmate-made items donated to the Hillsborough County School System had a retail value of $16,295, she said.

Such “Crafts with Conviction” classes, part of the prison’s “Tools for Teaching” programs, have turned lives around, Williams contended, restoring the self-esteem of women who, when released, find constructive purposes to guide the remainders of their lives. And, they are part of the reason the facility’s recidivism or return rate is pegged, according to prison computations, at just 6.7 percent, she added.

DOC, though, has stated the HCI recidivism actually is more than double that rate, in the 14 percent range.

It is such disputed data and other factors that has led Williams to question whether trust is warranted when dealing with the department, she said this week. For instance, she added, the department has stated no new structures have been built at the prison and Ronay has been quoted as saying the HCI closure will be held off pending additional information. Yet there’s a new warehouse on the grounds and, “he’s encouraging the staff to look for positions at other facilities,” she said.
Canney said this week she’s not “discouraged.”

And a DOC spokesperson said only that the department is continuing “to assess all options…for the maintenance and expansion of Faith and Character-Based beds and programming for female inmates in Florida’s prison system”.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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