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Inmates, volunteers sue to keep Hillsborough women's prison open

TALLAHASSEE — For the second year in a row, inmates and volunteers at Hillsborough Correctional Institution are suing the state to block a proposed closure of the Riverview prison.

The Legislature last year ultimately decided to keep the faith-based, women-only prison open. But it is on the chopping block again as the Department of Corrections looks to cut costs.

Tampa Bay legislators have vowed to save the prison, and the House's budget includes $8 million to keep it open. However, the Senate's budget doesn't have the same provisions and the Department of Corrections ranked the facility as the least efficient prison it operates.

Supporters are hoping the lawsuit filed on behalf of two volunteers and four inmates might persuade a judge to block the prison's closure if the Legislature does not.

As arguments began before a Tallahassee judge Thursday afternoon, about a dozen people wearing red "Save HCI" ribbons sat behind Tallahassee lawyer Dean LeBoeuf, who is representing the plaintiffs pro bono.

Following opening arguments, LeBoeuf spent about an hour questioning Clifford Hayes, the former assistant warden at Hills­borough Correctional. Hayes, who retired in 2011 after a 22-year career in the Department of Corrections, said he has never seen a facility as effective as the one in Riverview.

"The amount of support and the amount of programs, what they were accomplishing there, was unusual as far as I was concerned," he said.

The Attorney General's Office has filed a motion seeking to dismiss the lawsuit. None of the plaintiffs has grounds to sue and the court doesn't have the right to decide how a state agency spends its money, it said.

"The courts of Florida do not have the authority to direct the department where inmates should be placed," Assistant Attorney General Jay Vail said in his opening argument.

The trial will continue this morning with Circuit Judge Terry Lewis presiding.

Both the House and Senate already have agreed to spare one prison slated for closure, Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Inmates, volunteers sue to keep Hillsborough women's prison open 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 10:15pm]
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