TALLAHASSEE — Unless the Legislature decides to save it, Hillsborough Correctional Institution could close as soon as March 30. In fact, some inmates were already moved from the Riverview prison this week.
Janet Smith, a 71-year-old volunteer who teaches line dancing and mentors a couple of prisoners, said she showed up to the facility Thursday and learned one of her mentorees was already gone.
Other inmates said the woman and three others had been let out on work release programs and 12 others were sent to Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County on Wednesday.
"These ladies were very upset," said Smith of Sun City Center. "It just breaks my heart."
Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said the Department of Corrections told him Friday that 16 medical patients have already been moved out of the faith- and character-based prison.
Glorioso, who oversees prison spending in the House, is still working to keep Hillsborough Correctional open. He put $10 million in the House budget to keep it open, but the Senate hasn't followed suit. Still, Glorioso is hopeful that as he meets with Senate leaders to draft a final compromise the money for Hillsborough will remain.
"It's in my budget, and I'm going to fight to keep it in my budget," he said.
Gov. Rick Scott's office said Friday that he supports the Department of Corrections' plan to close prisons and work camps as a cost-cutting measure, but it is too early to say if the governor would use his veto pen to ensure it happens.
Under the Department of Corrections proposal, the 244 inmates at Hillsborough Correctional would be moved to dormitories currently under construction at Lowell Correctional Institution.
Four prison inmates and two volunteers are joint plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed to block that plan. However, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled Friday that there was no evidence closing Hillsborough Correctional violates state law.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said she could not comment on whether the transition of inmates is underway. Citing security concerns, Ann Howard said it is a long-standing department policy not to say when prisoners are being moved or where they're going.
Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker has proposed closing seven prisons and four work camps statewide in a consolidation plan he hoped would save $75 million. He could save another $2 million if Hillsborough Correctional closes this spring.
Under the consolidation plan, the faith- and character-based program currently housed at Hillsborough Correctional will move into two self-contained units at Lowell. The participants won't interact with the general prison population and will even eat in the cafeteria at separate times, assistant warden Djuna Poole said during her testimony.
Don Dionne, one of about a dozen prison volunteers who drove to Tallahassee to attend the court hearing, said he would be sad to see Hillsborough Correctional close but wouldn't protest a plan that seems to have an upside.
"We lose emotionally," he said. "But if they can have newer dorms with good facilities and if the state does what it says it's going to do, the state gains financially and the people really don't lose."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.