Local residents and legislators urge the DOC to keep Hillsborough Correctional Institution open

02/03/12 Lisa Marzilli
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Most residents of unincorporated south Hillsborough County are probably unaware that they share their neighborhood with a state prison. Ironically, the only reason they’re hearing about it now is because the facility is on the Department of Corrections’ chopping block. The Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview is one of 7 state prisons and 4 work camps targeted for closure by the end of June. So how does the DOC decide which prisons to close? Ann Howard, Communications Director for the Dept. of Corrections says the decision is based on a number of factors.

Hillsborough Correctional Institution is what’s known as a faith-and-character based facility, one of five in the state and one of only two exclusively for women. Nearby Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City Center plays an active role in the prison ministry. Volunteer chaplain and ministry chair Sharon Whiddon manages over 400 volunteers from places like Apollo Beach, Sarasota and Bradenton who donate their time and talents to vocational and mentoring programs for the approximately 300 inmates. The goal she says is to equip the women to re-enter society with a sense of purpose.

Dept. of Corrections figures put the cost to house an inmate at HCI at $97 per day compared to $63 at other state prisons. But Sharon Whiddon says those numbers don’t tell the whole story and do not reflect the facility’s low rate of re-offenders.

HCI has a lot of notable fans like State Senators Mike Fasano and Ronda Storms and Rep. Rich Glorioso of Plant City all working diligently to keep it open. Senator Fasano says the prison should be being held up as a model for other facilities, not shut down.

Another big supporter of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution is County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who placed the scheduled closing of HCI on the agenda of next Wednesday’s Commission meeting.

When asked to answer those who might criticize the lack of separation between church and state regarding HCI’s faith based agenda, Whiddon says,

Senator Fasano, who has been a vocal critic of the legislative push to privatize the state’s prisons, says it’s not too late for citizens to weigh in on HCI. He’s encouraging people to email Senate President Mike Haridopolos, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford and Governor Rick Scott. On Wednesday, Senator Fasano was stripped of his chairmanship of the budget committee which oversees prisons and the courts by Senate President Mike Haridopolos for his resistance to prison privatization.

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