Saving HCI, chapter two, now organizing

Published on: January 19, 2012

Volunteer Janet Smith at the faith-based prison for women near Balm.  Photo courtesy of Janet Smitch

Volunteer Janet Smith at the faith-based prison for women near Balm. Photo courtesy of Janet Smitch


BALM — Known for its rehabilitation success rate, lauded for its force of volunteers, the pioneering women’s prison here with programs that work again is in the sights of a state administration determined to eliminate it.
And once again, its advocates, many of them senior citizens, are preparing for combat in the political trenches.

Late last week, Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC) announced a consolidation plan that calls for closing 11 of its facilities around the state. It gives as reasons for the closures a declining prison admissions rate and excess bed space.

Hillsborough Correctional Institution (HCI) on C.R. 672 near Balm with a population of about 280 female inmates is one of those targeted. Closing date is March 1. DOC officially projects savings of a little over $.8.3 million in the 2012-13 timeframe if the 135-acre HCI campus is shuttered. The department is known for its estimates on the high side and its calculations do not take into account the savings that a functioning HCI represents.

“This is all about money – saving taxpayer dollars,” Nancy Williams, a charter HCI volunteer, stated in an initial email to the volunteer network following the closure announcement. It’s also about the hundreds of thousands of tax dollars inmates save the state with their work in public venues and about the thousands in contributions their prison production amounts to each year that offset the savings projected by closure, her communication emphasized.

Williams’ message, the first of a multi-faceted renewed effort to save the proven successful facility, also provided contact information for various elected officials whose responsibilities include prison funding, from the governor’s office to legislative leaders. She urged the volunteer force to make contact, passionately and rapidly.

Approximately a year ago, DOC made a similar move, aiming for HCI’s closure by June, 2011, transferring its inmates to other female prisons and relocating or terminating more than 100 employees. Several volunteers along with a couple of HCI’s “alumni” who had completed sentences and returned to constructive society advanced on Tallahassee to relate the HCI story to legislators unfamiliar with its programs and successes.

One of the points focused on was the statutory requirement that Florida’s DOC maintain at least one faith-based, character-building prison for women. DOC maintains several such facilities for male inmates around the state, but HCI was the only installation that fulfilled the obligation. Subsequently, DOC reportedly has established a similar female facility in Hernando County.

The effort last year brought HCI through the 2011 budget cycle, stalling closure with the help of Senator Ronda Storms, whose district includes eastern Hillsborough County. Hillsborough County commissioners also weighed in, adjusting zoning to raise the population cap for the facility and thereby paving way for reduction of per-inmate costs.

With closure staved off for 2011, the prison’s volunteer force, numbering in the hundreds and coming from surrounding communities including Sun City Center and Valencia Lakes, dug in to raise thousands of dollars in private funds for a variety of needs on the prison campus. They gathered $5,000 in donations and obtained a $5,000 matching grant for a $10,000 failed roof repair on one prison dormitory, then lined up the contractor to do the job. DOC estimated the repair work at $50,000. The job has been put on hold at the state’s request. Volunteers also raised $7,000 to fill large gift bags for each inmate prior to Christmas, 2011, and have talked about fund-raising campaigns to underwrite other major infrastructure needs on the prison campus.

Similarly, the work performed through the year by inmate crews at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, a massive agricultural experimentation complex affiliated with the University of Florida and located further east at Balm, is valued at about $300,000 annually. Two inmate work details have been donating their services at the complex where food-related research with worldwide impacts is conducted. A third work detail needed at the research center was in the formative stage.

Additionally, the sewing, paper and wood products made by the women in various programs on their compound constitute charitable donations with an estimated value of better than $200,000, Williams noted.

If the Balm campus is shuttered, most HCI inmates expect to be transferred to the large Lowell Correctional Institution, a female prison with a reputation for inmate abuse and where rehabilitation programs are very limited, noted Janet Smith, another long time HCI advocate and volunteer. At HCI now, “their fear level is off the charts because they know what awaits them,” she added.

The HCI programs, considered a model for the nation, range from training for employment to marketable crafts to athletics to religious instruction to one-on-one mentoring with the hundreds of retired area professionals turned volunteers. The results are demonstrated in renewed self confidence as well as commitment to learning and the value of the programs, produced at no cost to tax payers, shows in the low recidivism rate at HCI. More than 85 percent of HCI inmates return to society and constructive lives after serving sentences there.

However, transferring the women who have come so far in their lives back into a general prison population will be equivalent “to sending them to emotional and spiritual death,” Smith said, adding “I thought the goal was to reduce repeat offenders and we have a shining example of how to do that at HCI.”

Even DOC recognized HCI achievements, designating it the number one volunteer-facilitated prison in the state — just before it announced the closure.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson