State officials include Riverview's Hillsborough Correctional Institution in a consolidation plan to save $30.8 million annually by closing three prisons, two boot camps and a road prison by summer.
Volunteers at the faith- and character-based women's prison were shocked Tuesday when they received the news.
"We're going to lobby the governor," said Nancy Williams, a Sun City Center retiree who has volunteered at the prison since 2004. "I think the Corrections Department in Tallahassee doesn't see the faith- and character-based prison as what it is — changing lives."
The other facilities scheduled to be closed are Brevard Correctional Institution in Cocoa, Hendry Correctional Institution in Immokalee, Tallahassee Road Prison in Tallahassee, Lowell Boot Camp in Ocala and Sumter Boot Camp.
Hillsborough houses 289 women and has been run as a faith-based and character-building prison since 2004, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
The inmates will begin transferring to Lowell Correctional Institution's faith-based dormitories in Ocala on April 1, said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a Corrections Department spokeswoman.
"Hillsborough CI is one of our most expensive prisons to operate at $97.61 per inmate per day," Rackleff said. "The cost at Lowell CI, on the other hand, is $62.04."
Though the department said the bulk of its savings will come from employee attrition, all 141 employees at Hillsborough will be offered the option of transferring to open positions at Demilly and Polk correctional institutions in Polk City, Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green and Hernando Correctional Institution in Brooksville.
Hillsborough's warden, Rhodene Mathis, retired this month.
The state will avoid a $14 million expense, which includes building upgrades, by closing Hillsborough, Rackleff said.
The facility, the only state prison in Hillsborough, opened in 1976 for 272 boys. It changed populations three times before becoming a faith- and character-based women's prison.
Rackleff said the state owns the building, but there are no immediate plans for it.
"This plan is the right thing to do because it will save Florida taxpayers millions of dollars," Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss said in a statement. "The facilities to be closed are older and require more resources to operate than newer institutions. Additionally, this initiative will provide the department with an opportunity to consolidate program resources which will allow for seamless delivery of evidence based programs aimed to reduce recidivism."
Hillsborough volunteers said their recidivism rate is 6.7 percent — more than 25 percent lower than the state average.
"These ladies are not hardened criminals," said Janet Smith, 70, of Sun City Center. "If the governor wants to save money, I have 25 women right now that I can recommend for clemency."
Smith, who has volunteered for two years, said each inmate has a mentor who dedicates at least an hour a week to talking with her and to Bible study.
"I wish (corrections officials) could come down and meet these ladies and see what they accomplished and see how they turned their lives around," Smith said.
Buss came to Florida's top corrections job in February from serving as Indiana's corrections commissioner and was given a mandate by Gov. Rick Scott to cut costs and make prisoners become productive citizens.
In addition to typical rehabilitation programs that include education and skills workshops, the women at Hillsborough can participate in sports and carpentry, record audio books for their children and grandchildren and be part of a new sewing class.
Williams said the extra programs are funded by donations and fundraising, including grants.
"It's not about transferring a person's number. It's about a human being whose life is being changed and rearranged," he said.
The women should all be transferred to their new facility by June 30.