Following the announcement that the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview is on Gov. Rick Scott's chopping block, dozens of volunteers and prison supporters gathered outside the faith-based facility Saturday morning to protest the planned closure of the women's correctional facility.
The prison at 11150 County Rd. 672, Riverview, is a popular ministry of area churches and community groups. It is slated to be among the first of seven correctional facilities to be closed as a state cost-cutting measure. Closing the Riverview facility will save the state an estimated $8 million a year, according to the Department of Corrections. The prison plans to relocate inmates to Lowell Correctional Institute in Marion County starting in February and closing the prison by March 1.
"I'm just devastated," said Bloomingdale resident Minnette Webster, who began a popular arts program at the correctional institute nine years ago. "It's just awful. The girls are very depressed."
More than 400 residents volunteer at the prison, serving as mentors, teaching classes and directing programs designed to get the inmates back on their feet.
Hillsborough Correctional's Mission
The facility was established in 1976 to house 272 minimum- and medium- custody youthful offender male inmates. In 1988 the mission was changed to house adult males, and in 1994, it was reverted back to housing youthful offender males, ages 14 to 18. Then, in 2004, Hillsborough Correctional Institute became the state's only female Faith- and Character-Based Institution (FCBI).
It has a staff of 131 for a maximum of 486 inmates. The facility currently has about 300 inmates. To be accepted at the prison, the inmates go through an application process. Those accepted are women who have demonstrated acceptable behavior and a commitment to rehabilitation.
It offers a variety of programs to help the women inmates including adult basic education and General Education Development (GED), carpentry, culinary arts, art, anger management, creative writing, life skills, self-esteem, parenting, domestic violence and a transition program.
The women participate in such activities as making quilts for veterans and children in hospitals, making aprons and finger puppets for school children and recording children's stories on CDs for their children.
"I've had a lot of success working with these women," said Webster. "I have one woman who opened an art store. Another one is going to open an art school. Several of them didn't know anything about art and are now really interested in pursuing art. It’s helped them immensely with their self-esteem. It’s just been wonderful. It gives them something to look forward to"
Webster said it took quite a bit of money and work to establish the popular arts program at the prison.
"It's sad to end something so successful," she said. "Everybody's brokenhearted."
The irony, she said, is that the state is closing a prison that the residents actually want in their back yards.
"Where else can you find such strong support for a prison?" she asked. "This is a unique thing all around."
She said the state didn't take into consideration the prison's low recidivism rate when they targeted the Riverview facility to cut costs.
The average rate of women repeat offenders in Florida prisons is 21 percent. The rate at the Hillsborough Correctional Institute is less than 10 percent.
Ministry Behind Bars
Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City Center has an active prison ministry at the Hillsborough Correctional Institute.
Volunteers from the prison ministry of Prince of Peace Catholic Church have been visiting inmates at the facility for 20 years as it's been transformed from a men's and juvenile facility to a women's prison.
"Today, the ministry delivers reconciliation, healing and the love of God to the women inmates of Hillsborough Correctional Institute," said ministry chairwoman and volunteer chaplain Sharon Whiddon, a former psychiatric nurse.
"The prison ministry volunteers meet with the inmates bi-weekly to attend Mass or for one-on-one mentoring," said volunteer Hugh Burns. "We teach the catechism and hold Bible studies with those open to it. The ones that are Catholic thank us for the ability to read the Bible and pray the rosary with a fellow Catholic.”
The ministry also created a meditation rose garden for the inmates where they practice meditation and relaxation techniques they've learned, said Whiddon.
“The meditation rose garden is a quiet haven for the inmates,” said Whiddon. “It was an idea of Hugh’s that with much work and patience came to fruition.”
Throughout the year, the Sun City Center parish collects necessities for the inmates. At Christmas time, volunteers dress up as Santa and pass out gift bags to each inmate. In gratitude, the inmates put on a skit for the volunteers.
“Visiting the inmates is very rewarding because they are so grateful,” Whiddon said. “Ultimately, our goal is to equip them with skills that will ease their reintegration into society while bringing the love of God to them.”
Whiddon said, in September, her ministry put out a call for mentors to work one on one with inmates. At the time, the ministry had 45 mentors.
"By December, we had 170 mentors," she said.
"The support is just growing for this place," she said. "Every Sunday, a different church has a service there. We offer more than 65 classes there, from sign language to sewing."
Efforts to Keep the Prison Open
The volunteers have filed a lawsuit alleging that the state is violating women's rights by taking away the faith- and character-based program while there are two such programs for men in the state. The only other faith- and character-based program for women is in Hernando County.
They also are hoping a groundswell of support for the women's correctional facility will convince the governor to keep it open. Whiddon said they have the support of state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who serves on the Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations.
"There’s always hope," said Whiddon. "We're telling people to contact Gov. scott and let them know how important this facility is."
Webster, however, isn't optimistic.
"I don’t think anything can be done at this point," she said. "I’ve tried to keep positive around the girls but it looks as if there’s nothing we can do."