Jefferson County Correctional lives for another year...Hillsborough set to close

Mar 5, 2012

Legislative budget leaders have come to an agreement regarding some of the prison slated to close that could save the state millions of dollars. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, while budget negotiators agreed to keep Jefferson Correctional Institution open, another correctional facility got sacrificed during the budgetary process.

“Most of us have two jobs just to support our jobs, and it’s hard to keep your head up and do the job that you’re supposed to do, when instead you’re getting slapped in the face.”

About a month ago, David Williams, a correctional officer at Jefferson Correctional Institution stood before a Senate budget panel, pleading to lawmakers not to close down the north Florida correctional facility.

Williams was among many, who lobbied the Legislature not to make Jefferson C-I one of the 11 state prisons slated to close in the next few months. The closures was expected to save the state about 75-million dollars.

But, that all changed over the weekend, when Budget chairs, Representative Denise Grimsley and Senator JD Alexander announced a unanimous agreement to keep Jefferson open. Alexander made the announcement.

Alexander:“Relative to Jefferson Correctional Institute, we have a clear agreement between the Governor, the Department of Corrections, and the House and Senate that it will continue to operate fully within the Department of Corrections system, so I just wanted to make sure that was crystal clear.”

Wendy:“I know for sure. It’s finalized. The department took it off the closure list so it’s no longer in jeopardy.”

Wendy Bitner currently resides in Jefferson County, and she’s one of two lobbyists Jefferson County commissioners hired when they declared the county was in a state of economic emergency, following talks that the prison was about to close.

She says if the state had gone forward with the plan, Jefferson County would have lost 6-percent of its workforce, which she says would have devastated the local economy.

“So, it was probably the middle towards the end of January when the budget process was already underway in the Legislature, and I’m really proud of our community leaders, they came and they told their stories to Legislative Leaders, and we got unanimous support in both the House and Senate to get the funding to keep the prison open.”

She says throughout the process, they were optimistic because they believed things could change, but now that she is sure that the prison is saved, she’s ecstatic:

“So, it’s back in the prison space budget. It’s not even go through the Legislative process anymore. So, They’re committed to keeping our prison open. They realize the economic impact it would have on our county, and it’s nice to know that our leaders are listening to our community leaders.”

But, not all news was good news in the fight to keep certain prisons open:

“Well, I was disappointed to say the least. I had hoped, until the very end that we could save it. The leadership decided to the contrary and against the wishes and desires of many people in Hillsborough County.”

Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner is among a bi-partisan movement to keep Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview from closing.

Hillsborough is Florida’s only faith-and-character-based prison for women. It’s also known for having one of the lowest recidivism rates among all the state prisons in Florida. Tampa Bay area lawmakers tried to save the correctional institution through an amendment that, up until this weekend, had the support of many other lawmakers to keep the facility open.

However, both budget chairs, Grimsley and Alexander announced Hillsborough Correctional will continue to be on the Department of Corrections’ prison closure list, something that Republican Senator Mike Fasano attributes to a money issue, as well as what he calls ”political payback.”

“The Hillsborough County facility, women’s facility is in the Tampa bay area. Well, all but one Senator voted against privatization to privatize the prisons that we fought against a few weeks ago, including myself and Senator Storms and Senator Joyner that wanted to keep this Hillsborough County facility open. I believe there’s a little politics in there as well, a little payback to the Tampa Bay Senators for not supporting privatization.”

If Hillsborough Correctional Institution closes, it will save the state about 10-million dollars. Inmates from that institution are slated to be transferred over to the Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Marion County.