RIVERVIEW — As state officials walked past the prison's field, several dozen women in blue uniforms formed a circle in the distance.
The women gather at the same time every day, and though Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, couldn't hear the words, he knew why they congregated:
To pray that their prison be saved. To pray that even though the state has designated the women's faith- and character-based prison for closure, that someone finds a way.
"It's hope," Glorioso said. "Everybody has to have hope."
On Friday, the lawmaker, several political aides and Hillsborough officials toured the Riverview prison, led by several Department of Corrections officials.
Department Secretary Ken Tucker has said an excess of prison beds statewide makes closures unavoidable, and Hillsborough Correctional Institution is particularly expensive, according to the department. It's at the top of the agency's list of seven prison closures.
But Glorioso, the House chairman of prison spending, made it clear Friday that because of the prison's unique programs and low recidivism rate, he plans to do everything in his power to keep it open — at an estimated cost of $10 million.
Closing any prison is a terrible task, corrections Assistant Secretary of Institutions Tim Cannon told those on the tour. But it's even harder in Hillsborough, he said, where more than 400 people regularly volunteer.
They mentor the inmates, teach life skills, lead recovery meetings and give hugs.
"It makes you feel human again," said former inmate Brooke Harris, 30. "And it helped me heal myself."
Harris was released last week after serving seven years on a DUI manslaughter conviction. She was still in the prison when inmates heard the state planned to close HCI. It's the second time they've received such news, but last year, officials changed course.
"A lot of the girls are scared," Harris said. "They don't want to go back to the violence in the big, crowded prisons."
Nancy Burnham, 51, is worried her daughter, inmate Cheryl Anders, might move far away. The move would make it difficult for Anders to have weekend visits with her 9-year-old daughter.
And volunteer Janet Smith said that because of the prison's low recidivism rate, HCI's programs should be multiplied, not closed.
"The department's motto is, 'When they succeed, we succeed,' " she said. "Then wouldn't they want to take this model across the state?"
The agency made its decision based on criteria that doesn't include recidivism rates. And on the list of 140 prisons and work release centers, Hillsborough placed dead last.
Part of the problem is its low population (currently 264), which can't be increased until about $2 million in improvements are made, according to the state.
Several politicians are maneuvering to put money in the budget to cover those costs.
In addition to Glorioso, HCI's defenders include Sens. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano chairs the Senate budget committee that oversees prisons.
But even if their political moves keep Hillsborough open, that plan is fraught with peril. If one prison scheduled to shutter can be preserved through politics, others will seek similar relief.
Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello, for example, also is marked for closure. It is that North Florida county's leading employer, and the county has hired two lobbyists to work to keep it open.
Fasano says the double-whammy of prison closings and the privatization of all state prisons in the southern tier of the state is having a historically disruptive impact on corrections employees. But he conceded the prison system has the right to close Hillsborough.
"But my hope is that they will take into account the importance of HCI," Fasano said.
Several lawmakers plan to make their case Monday where it matters most: to Gov. Rick Scott and his staff. They want assurance that the state won't start transferring inmates in the next couple of months while they sort out the budget.
Meanwhile, supporters are once again launching a letter-writing campaign aimed at Scott.
In his letter, volunteer Eric Brown explained how HCI helps women become productive members of society when they're released.
"There is no way," he wrote, "that transferring the ladies to another institution will provide the stable spiritual, emotional, rehabilitative and educational atmosphere that only Hillsborough Correctional Institution can provide."
Melody Jameson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.