TALLAHASSEE — Inmates and volunteers at a women's faith-based prison in Riverview filed suit against the state Tuesday, seeking to block the Department of Corrections from closing the Hillsborough Correctional Institution.
The suit seeks to derail a controversial prison consolidation plan proposed two weeks ago by Gov. Rick Scott's new prison chief, Edwin Buss, who's under pressure to cut costs as the Legislature grapples with a $4 billion budget shortfall.
Buss set off a firestorm when he targeted the 292-bed facility, the state's only faith- and character-based prison for women. Three other faith-based prisons are home to about 4,400 male inmates.
At Hillsborough, more than 200 volunteers, many of them retirees from nearby Sun City Center, teach classes in education, wellness, personal development and self-esteem to prepare inmates for productive lives. The prison has a lower rate of recidivism than the system as a whole.
One of the lawsuit's plaintiffs is Charna Bogdany, 81, who spends Sunday nights monitoring art classes and teaching creative writing to inmates.
"This is such a unique program. It's just wonderful," said Bogdany, who lives in Sun City Center. "It reminds them that they can be productive again. These are good human beings who know they did something wrong."
The state proposed sending the Hillsborough inmates to dorms at women's prisons in Brooksville and Lowell, but advocates say that's unacceptable because it would deny women the self-contained prison that male inmates have.
Buss' top deputy, Dan Ronay, called the lawsuit premature because the agency has agreed to delay the closing of Hillsborough until at least June 30 to give the prison's volunteers time to develop a plan to reduce costs in collaboration with Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.
"The closing of Hillsborough has been tentatively put on hold, subsequent to the secretary's collaborative effort with Sen. Storms and the volunteers," Ronay said. "Time will tell."
In his lawsuit, Tallahassee attorney Dean LeBoeuf said the closing of Hillsborough would violate a state law requiring that men and women inmates get equal treatment.
At a Senate hearing two weeks ago, volunteers pleaded with the state to keep the prison open. Two former inmates of the Hillsborough facility, Monique Baker and Wendy Harris, impressed senators with stories of becoming productive citizens as a result of the character-building programs at the Tampa-area prison.
Under the consolidation plan, Brevard Correctional in Cocoa and Hendry Correctional in Immokalee also would be shut down, along with a road prison in Tallahassee and boot camps for youthful offenders at Lowell Correctional and Sumter Correctional in Bushnell. For the first time in nearly a decade, the prison system has a surplus of beds.
Buss hopes to complete the consolidation plan by June 30.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.