Saturday, February 24, 2018
Public safety

Rick Scott's budget ax targets Hillsborough women's prison

TALLAHASSEE — The real-life impact of Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget cuts is hitting home as the state targets seven prisons for extinction, including all-women facilities in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

The prison closings threaten to put as many as 1,300 state employees out of work, wreak havoc on rural areas where prisons are economic powerhouses, and force inmates' families to drive greater distances to visit loved ones at a time when gas prices are again climbing.

Also targeted for elimination are prison work camps in Gadsden, Hendry, Levy and Washington counties in addition to prisons in Alachua, Bradford, Indian River, Jefferson and Polk counties.

Legislators immediately began scrambling to find ways to stop the closings, but Scott's prisons chief, Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker, said that a declining crime rate and a surplus of empty prison beds make the action necessary, and that some prisons would begin being phased out as early as next month.

"There was no way to avoid this," Tucker said. "Every year, we see less people coming into prison."

A Scott priority is to create private-sector jobs while shrinking government. His budget proposal to the Legislature includes eliminating 4,500 more state jobs, which includes $64 million in savings from "prison consolidation."

The state houses about 100,000 inmates and has 112,000 beds, with an estimated 4,000 beds still under construction that were approved years ago.

"That excess capacity, no one can justify," Tucker said.

Tucker said the Department of Corrections will offer jobs to displaced workers at nearby prisons or other state agencies wherever possible.

The only South Florida prison targeted for closure is Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines, with 624 inmates and 270 employees. It has been in operation since 1977.

The state used a numerical rating system to score every prison based on nine factors, such as per-inmate cost, operating overhead, distance to other prisons and community impact.

Hillsborough scored dead last with 22 points, making it especially vulnerable.

But despite its small size and high operating costs, the Riverview prison has many devoted followers who rave about its success at using faith and character programs to improve the lives of female inmates.

"We have to convince the governor that DOC is making another mistake," said Nancy Williams, a prison volunteer and retiree in nearby Sun City Center. Williams lobbied to prevent Hills­borough's shutdown last spring.

Another Sun City Center resident, prison volunteer Sharon Whiddon, said she and others want to meet with Scott.

"There is no other prison like it that's in a retirement community area, where people have the experience and time and are willing to give of themselves," Whiddon said.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, challenged the rating system, claiming Hillsborough's inmate costs were disproportionately inflated as a result of inmates who are transferred there solely because of health problems.

The Hillsborough prison has strong local allies in the Senate, including three members who serve on the panel that must approve the prison system's budget.

They are Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who chairs the panel, Democrat Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, and Storms, who said she will "attack" the closure plan and focus on influencing Scott.

Fasano is getting emails from upset volunteers at Hillsborough, such as Barbara and Dick Gingrich of Sun City Center, who said her neighbors have raised money for prison improvements, bought toiletries and donated a golf cart to the prison.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, represents Jefferson County, east of Tallahassee, where the state plans to close a decades-old prison that is home to 1,200 inmates. About 15,000 people live in the county.

"It's such a big part of the employment base in Jefferson County," Montford said. "It's going to have a significantly detrimental effect on the whole community."

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith blistered Scott for the closings, saying it was part of "his extreme tea party agenda that has eliminated jobs and moved our state in the wrong direction."

Times staff writer Sarah Whitman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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