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Lawmakers exert pressure to save Tampa prison

As state prison officials embark on plans to close a women's prison near Tampa, area legislators are setting up a showdown by taking steps to keep it open. The potential showdown involves Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, one of seven prisons slated for closure by July 1 as part of a consolidation plan to save $75 million.

Hillsborough is a prison where women take part in faith-based programs and where up to 400 volunteers a month help rehabilitate inmates so they do not return to prison. But under Department of Corrections' criteria, HCI was ranked dead last because of its per-inmate costs, outdated equipment and other factors. Tampa Bay lawmakers say the state has overlooked the prison's low recidivism rate of 7 percent by one state study (the prison system says HCI's recidivism rate is 14 percent, still below the statewide average for women of 19 percent). The agency says it is very difficult to produce precise recidivism rates because inmates frequently are shifted between prisons.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who chairs a House budget subcommittee for prisons, rolled out a preliminary budget keeping Hillsborough open, with $2 million for repairs and $8 million for operations. It's not known whether Glorioso's action has the critical backing of House Speaker Dean Cannon. "We've been getting bad information from the department about its recidivism rate," Glorioso said. "I was mad at the department."

On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who heads a similar panel in the Senate, said he too will take steps to keep HCI open, along with Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who bluntly criticized Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker for minimizing the prison's successes. "The department doesn't have ears," Storms said. Fasano is a senior member of the Senate but is largely cut off from leadership decisions.

Tucker still sounds determined to close Hillsborough because his budget is in the red and he has to urgently cut costs. "We're going to have to pretty much stick to the timetable that we have. We're just not going to publicize that timetable because of security risks."