Community volunteer Carol Jo Meador, left, is joined by a group of inmates at the Hillsborough Correctional Institute during a recent “Crafts With Convictions” class, one of dozens of educational and self-improvement classes offered at the faith-based facility. The class has donated over $200,000 worth of paper and sewing items to Hillsborough Education Foundation, made lap quilts for use at the VA and at Shriners Hospitals in Tampa as well as tote bags for Joshua House for children in Brandon.

Since Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Kenneth Tucker announced in January the shut down Hillsborough Correctional Institute (HCI), Florida’s only faith-based prison for women in Riverview, along with six other facilities, by this summer, the question of “why close a prison that actually does good” has been weighing heavy on the minds of many.

“Declining prison admissions has led to a surplus of prison beds, allowing us to pare down our budget shortfall by consolidating and closing our older, less efficient facilities,” Tucker said. “We are committed to placing as many affected staff as possible in vacant positions for which they are qualified.”

Upon hearing the news of the prison’s fate, Sun City Center resident and HCI volunteer Janet Smith, did not hesitate to give an insightful reply to Tucker’s decision, when she said that the DOC motto of ‘When they succeed, We succeed,’ should be changed to ‘When they succeed, We close them down’.

“HCI is the most successful women’s prison in the state,” Smith added. “The facility’s six percent recidivism rate verses the 30 percent statewide average was not even considered in the closing criteria.” 

Following the decision, urged by Gov. Rick Scott to save $64 million in operating costs, community advocates, local and state government officials and many of the more than 400 volunteers that support HCI inmates through the more than 75 educational and self-improvement programs, have joined Smith in the battle to keep the prison open.

The scrimmage continued as a law suit urging the DOC from closing the prison, located at 11150 Hwy 672 in Riverview was filed.

However, a mid-February decision by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who did not issue a temporary injunction blocking HCI’s closure, resulted in the first set of inmate relocation of 12 of the close to 300, to the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla.

Besides the local volunteers, HCI’s supporters include Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, as well as Sens. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Senate budget committee chair, Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

A glimmer of hope came to HCI supporters in Storm’s February 24 press release, which stated that she has ‘successfully amended the DOC budget in the Senate’s general appropriations bill to include $2 million in nonrecurring general revenue funds as a maintenance appropriation for HCI’.

The amendment, which passed unanimously, enables the facility to make necessary repairs and renovations.
“They are doing things right,” Storms said. “Hillsborough Correctional Institution deserves the state’s support so they can continue to improve lives. I am proud of the bipartisan support we saw this week.”

Bloomingdale artist, Minnette Webster, 74, who has volunteered her time and efforts by running an art program at HCI, also hopes to see the facility operate as it has been since its conversion into a female faith and character-based institution in 2004.

“Through art, I have been able to help so many inmates with self esteem at this facility,” Webster said. “Some have made art their lives and are now successfully contribute to society.”  

Sharing Webster’s sentiments, Smith again emphasized the reason why so many volunteers are giving up their own time to help.

“The driving force is that I just want to help people,” Smith said. “This work gives you an inner satisfaction of knowing that we are changing lives. It’s a real blessing. The goal should be to return these inmates to the community as productive citizens.”

The fate of HCI and the outcome of the community’s effort to save the prison from being shuttered remains to be seen.
If the FDOC is allowed to close the doors on HCI, all inmates will vacate the facility by this summer.

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