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Volunteers enlist Senator’s help with questions about prison closings

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image Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview is just one of the state’s many prisons that have recently closed. Penny Fletcher photo

Questions from former volunteers at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution continue.

By PENNY FLETCHER

RIVERVIEW — Questions from former volunteers at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution following the publication of a news story in the Sept. 6 edition of The Observer News led to reports of relatively-recent closings of many other prisons, including the East Tampa Juvenile Detention Center that housed South County’s detained youth. (The Sept. 6 story is still available to read at www.observernews.net.)

The 400-plus former volunteers at HCI are currently engaged in trying to find out whether the women they visited and mentored are still being given the “faith and character-based programs” they received at HCI, and where each one they communicate with will go if and when they leave the Lowell Reception Center in Ocala.

Many of the local volunteers drive to Ocala to see these women, who some have worked with for years, and are concerned about lack of “faith and character-based programs,” and problems such as over-crowding there.

Myrna Persinger and others are also worried because the women they see and write to are not eligible for parole, even though they have as many as 15-to-30 years left to serve and have been (or were being) rehabilitated under the “faith and character-based system” operated by staff and volunteer cooperation at HCI.

The local group took their cause to State Sen. Ronda Storms, who, in a Sept. 24 interview, stated that “The faith-based prison, along with its 400-plus volunteers, truly influenced and helped change lives. I think it is a true shame it has been dismantled. I am a pretty tough law and order legislator, but I am a strong supporter of restorative justice. Society has a keen interest in returning women prisoners to the general population who will be less likely to return to a life of crime, and HCI offered that rare attribute to our state. What a shame.”

She also questions the rating system used by the Florida Department of Corrections — at least in the case of HCI — in a phased closing of many prisons and youth detention centers in cost-cutting measures between March 2011 and Aug. 2012.

“The rating the DOC used to reflect the cost of maintaining the prison per inmate inflated the true cost because HCI provided medical care to inmates from surrounding facilities,” Storms said. “In my view, inmates transported from other facilities should be calculated against the sending facility if that is where the inmate satisfies her prison sentence. Yet, the DOC used those skewed numbers to inflate the cost of providing care to inmates and justify closing the prison.”

Storms went on to say she felt it was a priority for the DOC to close the Hillsborough Correctional Institute and the rating system was merely a way for them to validate that argument.

The volunteers say the arbitrary rating system could have been used at other facilities as well.

In telephone interviews performed between Sept. 19 and Sept. 24, the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee reported that the closings around the state will save taxpayers approximately $25 million in costs and $30 million to the State budget.

Besides HCI, other adult prisons that were closed include the Brevard Correctional Institution in Cocoa Beach; Hendry CI in Immokalee; Tallahassee Road Prison; Lowell CI Boot Camp; and Sumter Boot Camp. Additionally, some youth detention facilities were closed and adult inmates that required close management were moved out of Charlotte CI in Punta Gorda to other institutions making room for transferred inmates that did not require as tight a facility.

In the 1990s, the Manatee County Jail was moved from downtown Bradenton to the Manatee Correctional Facility at Port Manatee and still remains there although a youth boot camp operated at that site has been closed, according to Manatee sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow.

The DOC maintains that even though they will save millions, the closings were not budgetary-based.

“There are fewer inmates,” said DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff in Tallahassee. “As of 2010, many other states have also closed or are now closing both adult and juvenile facilities amid a climate of fewer arrests.”

Persinger and Sharon Whiddon of Sun City Center, both who volunteered at HCI, are two who say they wonder how there can be fewer people in prison now that there is no system of parole.

“Some of the women we knew (at HCI) had long terms to serve and the system no longer allows them to go before a parole board and request early release,” she said. “In fact, there was a petition effort that needed 50,000 signatures to go to Gov. (Rick) Scott but the leaders of that drive met with him in August and did not have the required number of signatures,” Persinger said. (The petition and background, contact names and all other information about the lack of parole may be found at http://www.forgottenmajority.com/.)

According to the DOC web site, http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/timeserv/doing/index.html, as of 1994 legislative action eliminated parole except for those serving life sentences who may request a hearing after serving 25 years. Some people who were incarcerated before 1984 when new policies first started have also been grandfathered in so that they may request parole.

Local volunteers who work with the women transferred from HCI have not given up on trying to help them though, including working with Storms’ office to see what can be done about reinitiating parole.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, however, when questioned by telephone last week, said its decisions to close youth facilities was made chiefly to accommodate a shrinking budget.

C. J. Drake, the spokesman named many newly-closed facilities around the state besides Tampa East Detention Center and said that the 2011/2012 budget had been reduced by $67 million, and had eliminated 600 positions, almost 500 of which had been vacated by attrition when cut.

An email followed, quoting statements made by Gov. Rick Scott when signing the legislation into law, where Scott said “The State of Florida is embarking in a new strategic direction for treating youth in juvenile facilities… this is a profound shift in how the agency has historically handled juvenile offenders… and we will be reforming our residential practices and community systems to comply with the new systems.”

Juvenile offenders from South County will now join those from other areas of the county in the West Detention Center near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The real estate and buildings vacated did not belong to the DOC or DJJ, and have been returned to the State of Florida. There is no word yet from Tallahassee as to how they will be used (or if they will be sold) in the future.

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