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Special South County prison escapes budget ax – for now

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Florida’s Department of Corrections this week committed to saving the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Balm.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Facing alleged state statute violations and a growing number of foes, Florida’s Department of Corrections this week committed to saving the Hillsborough Correctional Institution here.

The state agency’s reversal of plans to close the unique correctional facility for women on 135 acres west of Balm by June 30 to cut costs came on the eve of a circuit court hearing related to legal action filed on behalf of dedicated local volunteers and advocating inmates.

It arrived in the form of an email from the department’s attorney, Jason Vail, announcing that DOC had found funding to keep the prison open and had abandoned plans for its closure, according to Dean R. LeBoeuf, a Tallahassee lawyer who sued the department on behalf of six plaintiffs from Sun City Center and from the prison.

The news was greeted by two of the plaintiffs and one of the pro-HCI campaign organizers with gratitude and pleasure, expressed mostly for elected officials who lent support to the effort and for the inmates who benefit from the facility’s innovative Faith and Character-based programs.

The lawsuit named Edwin G. Buss, Florida’s Department of Corrections Secretary, as defendant in an action pressed by Plaintiffs Tamara O’Quinn, Lynette Blaine, Shirley Sneed, Delia Lee Rennert, Charna Bogdany and Kathleen Kelly.

Rennert and Bogdany are Sun City Center residents who have volunteered their time and skills to lead various programs at the prison. O’Quinn, Blaine and Sneed are current HCI inmates. Kelly, a former inmate, has been released from the facility and, LeBoeuf stated in his complaint, now “is a productive member of society.”

As plaintiffs’ counsel, LeBoeuf had sought a declaratory judgment against Buss, the department head, alleging that he and the department violated Section 944.803, Florida Statutes, which requires provisions for female inmates on par with programs offered male inmates. The attorney’s complaint on behalf of his multiple clients also asked for a temporary injunction prohibiting Buss and the department from closing HCI until another facility duplicating the local prison’s programs was provided.

In his complaint, LeBoeuf’ emphasized that with the statute “The Legislature mandated ‘at least’ seven (7) fully operational faith and character based programs” in Florida’s penal system. At present, he noted, only four exist, three of them for male inmates, just one for female inmates and it at HCI – “one of the original statutorily required programs.”

LeBoeuf’s suit also pointed to the Corrections Equality Act, Section 944.24 in Florida’s Statutes, which requires that “Women Inmates shall have access to programs of education, vocational training, rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment that are equivalent to those programs which are provided for male inmates.” The attorney added that DOC itself states “Faith and Character Based Institutions are entire correctional facilities devoted to the Faith and Character Based Correctional Initiative.”

Closing HCI, therefore, would constitute a violation of Section 944.803, Florida Statutes, as well as of the Corrections Equality Act, LeBoeuf argued.

Vail, a lawyer attached to Florida’s Office of the Attorney General and representing DOC, had responded to the complaint with the legal retort usual in such matters, a Motion to Dismiss. However, with their Tuesday hearing only hours away, Vail contacted LeBoeuf.

He “advised me that the Secretary of the Department of Corrections has told him that the legislature has appropriated the necessary money in the budget to keep HCI open for the coming year, and there are now no current plans to close the facility,” LeBoeuf told The Observer.

One of the plaintiff volunteers, Charna Bogdany, thought first of the HCI inmates, saying from her SCC home, “I know 300 women and many prison guards who are going to be singing tonight, and I shall join them from here.”

Similar thoughts were expressed by Delia Lee Rennert, also a SCC volunteer, who underscored the degree of enjoyment and satisfaction that the retirees find in leading classes, sharing knowledge, mentoring and encouraging the women passing through the institution, to emerge better citizens.

And Nancy Williams, a retired teacher who has been volunteering at the prison since the faith and character based program was introduced there, credited the growing number of officials who have contributed in one way or another to the campaign to keep HCI and its programs in place.

That effort began in March, just days after DOC said the Balm facility would be closed in order to slash expenditures. The department pointed to substantial repairs needed in some of the buildings, to the relatively high per diem cost of keeping inmates on a compound which is not utilized to full capacity and disputed the low recidivism rate in which the prison takes pride.

The campaign first took the volunteers, accompanied by women who had successfully completed the program and been released, to a Florida Senate committee hearing in Tallahassee where two outspoken senators, Mike Fasano from Pasco County, and Ronda Storms, from Hillsborough, expressed keen interest in the situation. Storms’ staff followed up with help in smoothing the way for instituting some helpful technical changes.

In addition, Hillsborough’s Board of County Commissioners became involved, unanimously supporting a resolution calling for keeping HCI, the only prison in the county, open and operating.

At press time, a streamlined “personal appearance” hearing on June 7 before the BOCC to helpfully tweak language related to a previous rezoning of the prison property remained scheduled.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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