BALM – As Florida’s annual legislative session opens this week, badly-needed roofing repairs at the state prison here are up in the air.
The reason, though, is not ongoing work, but rather the state’s looming budget cycle.
Monies have been raised through donations to pay for rehabilitation of the failed dormitory roof over 56 inmates and a contractor awaits the go ahead. However, the critical project has been put on hold as concerned eyes focus on Tallahassee and resumption of the inevitable legislative budget battles that last year threatened closure of the model facility known as Hillsborough Correctional Institution (HCI).
HCI, located, on S.R. 672 near Balm, is Florida’s first faith-based and character-building prison for women, and has become a model for incarceration facilities in other states. Situated on a 134-acre campus, the prison originally built for youthful first offenders about 35 years ago now houses some 280 female inmates in aging dormitory- style structures behind chain link fence and rolled razor wire.
In the half dozen years since the facility was designated a female inmate rehabilitation center, a volunteer force of about 500 residents in South Hillsborough – many of them retired professionals from communities such as Sun City Center and Valencia Lakes – has developed to serve as one-on-one mentors or to conduct a wide variety of training programs for the women on their compound. HCI has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the state penal system, with about 86 percent of the inmates rejoining society at the end of their sentences and remaining law-abiding citizens.
The $5,000 grant in December from the Hadley and Helen Hill Fund in the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center swelled the reroofing kitty to nearly $11,000, according to Janet Smith, a SCC resident and out-spoken volunteer advocate on behalf of HCI. Close to $6,000 earmarked for the new roof already had been raised through donations from area churches, various organizations and interested individuals as a result of efforts by the numerous South County volunteers who regularly share their time and talents at the prison, Smith added.
The foundation’s matching contribution provided funds sufficient to get the roofing project underway with a local contractor who had agreed to undertake and guarantee the work for just $10,000, she said. Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC), which last year listed HCI for closure, had estimated the roofing work on Dormitory K at $50,000, Smith noted.
Despite having both the money and the contractor at hand, however, the new roof remains a goal rather than a reality. In a December 29, 2011, email to Smith, a DOC spokeswoman requested delay. Noting that the prison system now has more than 10,000 empty beds, Ann Howard, DOC Communications Director, said “all institutions statewide are in the process of being evaluated to determine which beds will be utilized to operate the Department in the most efficient, cost effective and successful manner.” The information will be used to decide “the location of state run facilities,” she added.
It was about a year ago that Janet Smith and fellow SCC resident Nancy Williams, along with two former HCI inmates, began planning a presentation for the Florida Senate’s Justice Appropriations committee aimed at informing committee members of the facility’s wide community support and unparalleled successes. HCI had been targeted for closing as part of a cost-cutting program.
Closure in 2011 was staved off when a cap on the facility’s inmate population was raised to allow nearly 500 inmates to be housed there, thereby decreasing the state’s per-inmate costs. The inmate population increase was the result of cooperative efforts by Sen. Ronda Storms, whose district includes HCI, and the Hillsborough County Commission.
However, another budget crunch now confronts the 2012 legislature convening in Tallahassee this week for its annual session. A combination of circumstances including the lingering recession and reduced revenues signal a significant budget shortfall that legislators must address. Historically, lawmakers’ most frequent response is to slash costs.
As a direct result, HCI volunteers, staff and other concerned South County citizens now are watching and listening carefully for any signs the facility again is at risk of closure, Smith indicated. No appointments have been made yet in the state capital on behalf of HCI, she said, adding that advocates for the prison are poised to spring into action.
Meanwhile, the bad roof over Dorm K, which also lacks heat and air conditioning, will continue to leak without any timeline in place for making repairs, Smith acknowledged.
Several area lawmakers have stated publicly in recent weeks that because the two legislative bodies will be occupied first with the thorny issues of redistricting, budget matters could be postponed to a special session following the customary annual assembly. That could leave HCI’s fate unknown– and any action on roof repairs – until March or later.
Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson