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Volunteers Protest Riverview Prison's Planned Closure

The Hillsborough Correctional Institution, an all-women's facility served by local ministry and arts programs, is scheduled to close March 1.

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."

Rick the Prick January 25, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Dear residents of Hillsborough County; NO amount of pleading, begging, or crying is going to mean one iota to Governor Scott. He only cares about 1 thing, the all mighty dollar. This is the same man who started out his business life while in the Navy by buying and stockpiling sodas when his ship was at shore and then selling them back to his fellow shipmates at an outrageously higher price. Later in life, Mr. Scott moved on to over billing Medicaid and in 1997 his medical company was raided by the FBI, IRS, and others in what became the Largest Medicaid Ripoff Ever. He was forced to resign and his company ultimately admitted to fourteen felonies and agreed to pay the federal government over $600 million in fines. After that he ran for and was elected by a very, very slim margin for the Governor of Florida. While Governor, he has kept up his bilking practices by privatizing, not just a few prisons, but an entire region so that he can make money from the Private Prison Industry who helped pay for his election as well as his inaugural party and a grand Super Bowl party. He will do whatever he can to make a dollar for himself, do not be fooled in the belief that he is doing what is good for the state of Florida. I URGE and PLEAD with all those affected by this tyrant to do EVERYTHING they can to insure he is not elected to another term. Better yet, lets insure that any elected official in Tallahassee who votes for Prison Privatization is not elected again. It doesn't save $$$.
Mary Carr January 28, 2012 at 04:54 AM
A Christian bunch of woman in this prison, if they are Christian oriented why are they on sites that invite men to write them and say they are hot wanting a man. I personally have seen a letter that one of the inmates wrote a man and in the letter she said she could not wait to get out so she could have him between her legs, this was the nicest thing she wrote in the letter. Granted there are some decent inmates there but some will do and say anything just to try and get out early. We all know that. This is a bad time for all people and the governor is trying to do the best he can and save money where he can.

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