TALLAHASSEE — Volunteers and ex-inmates at a women's prison in Tampa Bay staged a bold lobbying blitz in the Capitol on Monday, stalling a Department of Corrections money-saving plan to close the facility.
Offering passionate and detailed testimony, advocates for Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview persuaded the prison system's No. 2 man, Dan Ronay, to slow the reorganization to give them time to come up with an efficiency plan.
"Ladies, ladies, I'm a pretty reasonable man," Ronay told the group that encircled him in a Capitol hallway. "Let's put something together."
Hillsborough, where faith-based programs have improved many women's lives, is one of seven prisons slated for closure by Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss in a consolidation plan he says can save $31 million a year.
With agencies under intense pressure to cut costs, prison officials say the prison is overstaffed and expensive to maintain, and local zoning rules thwart efforts to add inmates. Instead, the Department of Corrections wants to move the nearly 300 inmates to faith-based dorms at prisons in Hernando and Marion counties.
"The reason we looked at it is the cold hard eyes of being fiscally prudent for the state of Florida," Ronay told a Senate committee.
But Hillsborough has a fierce following, led by residents of nearby Sun City Center who serve as teachers, mentors and coaches to inmates and who donate computers, clothes and other items.
An estimated 400 volunteers help women build self-esteem, learn real-life skills and find religious faith. Prison officials appeared to be blindsided by the level of fervor expressed by the prison's supporters.
"Sending these ladies back into the general population will be like sending them to an emotional and spiritual death," Sun City Center volunteer Janet Smith told legislators.
The volunteers and former inmates complained that the shutdown plan was hatched in Tallahassee and the prison never had a chance to prove its value, including its low rate of recidivism by ex-inmates.
They said that if the state moved the inmates to faith-based dorms in prisons in Hernando and Marion counties, the Tampa-based network of volunteers would fall apart.
Wendy Harris, 46, of Carrollwood said she was a crack addict living on the streets until a sentence at Hillsborough turned her life around.
"I had no future. I was always going to feel worthless and hopeless," she told senators. At HCI, she said, "I developed a feeling of compassion to help other people. Please find a way to keep it open."
Monique Baker, 50, of St. Petersburg, whose 35-year prison term was commuted by former Gov. Charlie Crist in December, also provided living proof of the prison's power to rehabilitate.
"The environment and the attitude of the staff and inmates there supports that there is a life after prison, and other institutions simply do not care," Baker testified. "At HCI, the prevailing attitude is that you are a new woman, you are valuable, and you are successful. With that kind of positive reinforcement, the women are motivated to excel."
Sun City Center resident Nancy Williams, who has volunteered at Hillsborough since it became a faith-based prison in 2004, said that its rate of reoffending is 6.7 percent, compared to 33 percent in the entire system.
She brought 160 handwritten letters from inmates pleading to keep the prison open.
The visitors' cause was helped by the fact that three of the seven senators on the panel are from Tampa Bay: Republican Mike Fasano, the committee's chairman; Republican Ronda Storms of Valrico; and Democrat Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. Other people who watched in the audience marveled at how persuasive the Hillsborough delegation was.
"You all did a wonderful job," Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt told the group.
Fasano directed the prison system to meet with the volunteers and ex-inmates and find a way to address their concerns. He also will seek to require legislative approval of any prison closures.
"We've heard and seen the success," Fasano said. "When there's success, we don't want to go back in time."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.