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Legislators support HCI

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image Peggy Smith, Hillsborough County development services director, was interested in fabric articles made in the prison sewing center. Melody Jameson Photo

Unique, successful correctional institution is gaining support

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Bolstered by a firsthand look inside the Hillsborough Correctional Institution here last week, local legislators took the campaign to keep the uniquely successful female prison open to Tallahassee’s top tier this week.

Five area lawmakers from both houses of the legislature - Senator Ronda Storms as well as Representatives Rich Glorioso, Rachel Burgin, Betty Reed and Darryl Rouson — met with Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, Monday morning to underscore HCI’s importance to its 275 inmates, its 130 staff members, its 400 plus volunteers, its parent agency, the surrounding region, and to society in general.

Following the session, Glorioso told The Observer that MacNamara listened carefully and understood the lawmakers’ positions. Signals pointing to whether Florida’s Department of Corrections will or will not back off its stated intention to close the faith-based, character-building facility with an outstandingly low recidivism rate could come as early as week’s end, he added.

The DOC announced last month that HCI would be among the 11 prisons and work release centers around the state that it earmarked for closure in a continuing effort to cut costs. The prison, situated on 120 acres bordering C.R. 672, would be shuttered by March 1, with some 270 inmates transferred most likely back to Lowell Correctional in North Central Florida beginning February 1, the department said. DOC has stated that in the first year after closure, a savings of more than $8 million would be realized.

The department cited an excess of unused prison beds and anticipated high maintenance costs at 35-year-old HCI as part of the rationale supporting the consolidation and closure. The agency developed a formula for ranking its facilities and applied the resulting criteria to the 50 plus Florida penal institutions. HCI, it said, ranked at the bottom , due in part to a high daily cost for maintaining each inmate there. It cited a per diem of $97.59.

This was just one of the figures challenged last week when a group of state and county officials, led by Glorioso, toured HCI and then sat down with DOC administrators to examine the department’s case for closure.

The group, which included Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, Hillsborough’s Development Services Director Peggy Smith and Brandon Wagner, the county’s intergovernmental relations manager, along with legislative aides from the offices of Sen. Storms, Rep. Rouson, Rep. Glorioso and Rep. Shawn Harrison, first walked the HCI compound, most of them for the first time.

Undergoing the standard search before getting past high chain link fencing and rolled razor wire barriers, they got close up views of the spartan but immaculate inmate cells and dorms, they walked through the inmate dining hall during lunch hour greeted cheerfully by the eating women. They checked out the inmate-staffed prison laundry, the computer lab with 10 stations featuring new equipment donated by volunteers where inmates learn computer skills, practicing for job hunting following release, and they saw the well-stocked library that for some constitutes the only connection with the outside world.

They stepped into the quiet, darkened but well-used chapel which is the center of the prison’s faith-related programs and took in the sewing center where inmates create many articles donated to help area children and local teachers. They glimpsed the daily prayer circle forming on the outdoor basketball court, as dozens of inmates clasped hands to unite in prayer and song for a short time at mid-day.

 And back in Warden Robin Smith’s conference room, they expressed surprise over the tidy environment, the hopeful atmosphere, the charitable productivity of the HCI compound where a pair of sand hill cranes share the landscape with inmates. “This is not a warehouse,” Glorioso summed up emphatically for the group, “this is a prison that works.”

On that note, several began to question the DOC contentions used to justify the planned closure. Audie Canney, Storms’ legislative aide, wanted to know why recidivism, a reliable measure of HCI’s success in helping inmates re-enter society and thereafter lead constructive lives, was not included in the DOC criteria used to rank it the least desirable facility to keep. DOC documents put the HCI inmate rate of return to prison variously at 6 and 11 and 14 percent. Even at 14 percent, HCI recidivism is among lowest in the state and indicates 86 percent of its released inmates do not re-enter the prison system.

Amber Smith, legislative aide to Glorioso, pointed to potential discrepancy in the DOC method of computation and suggested that skewed raw figures plugged into a calculation formula are likely to produce skewed, unreliable final data.

Hillsborough County personnel asked for justification of the proposed multi-million dollar maintenance costs that DOC says the HCI campus would require if continued in use. The department has estimated the cost of replacing or repairing a failed roof on one dorm at least five times higher than the amount agreed to by a local contractor willing to do the work.

Glorioso suggested that the high $97 per diem being used by DOC to demonstrate HCI’s high cost to keep actually would be reduced to a more reasonable level on par with other facilities if the medical services provided to inmates not residing at HCI were not added into and therefore inflating the HCI budget. In addition, he suggested that increasing the HCI inmate population to the allowed limit would further reduce per-inmate costs.

As the session ended, Canney also asked Tim Cannon, DOC’s assistant secretary of institutions, if the department would agree not to transfer inmates out of HCI until after the current legislative session ended sometime in March. He responded he could not make that commitment. Canney later pointed out that newly-installed Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker, did make the commitment during a senate sub-committee hearing on prison budget matters earlier in the week.

Glorioso said this week that his Florida House of Representatives prison appropriations committee budget does not eliminate HCI and that an extra $2 million has been added to it, designated for HCI maintenance and repairs. Any challenge to that proposed appropriation could come at mid-week, he indicated, when his portion of the larger House budget goes under review.

Reiterating a point that was emphasized in the Monday meeting with MacNamara, the governor’s chief of staff, Glorioso asserted “HCI is a prison that does what we expect and want a prison to do. Closing something that works successfully makes no sense at all.”

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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