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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Bids sought for former Hillsborough Correctional Institution

RIVERVIEW — Gone are the neatly trimmed grounds, the crisp baselines on the softball field and the hustle and bustle of people coming and going. The tall chain-link fences that once kept the people on the inside from getting outside now keep the people on the outside from getting inside.

The defunct Hillsborough Correctional Institution, which boasted a recidivism rate among the lowest for women in Florida when it was shuttered two years ago this month, now sits idle, unused and on the auction block.

Earlier this month, the state began accepting bids on the property, setting the minimum price at $2.9 million for the 135-acre tract on Balm Road just east of U.S. 301. The property was advertised like this: “as is, where is.”

That includes 134,700 square feet of building space comprised of offices, classrooms, medical facilities, a fully built-out gymnasium, a chapel, a large food preparation and serving area and maintenance buildings.

The county property appraiser puts the market value of the property, currently zoned for government use, at $4.6 million.

The advertisement for bids, issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, says the site is “a unique development opportunity for uses including corporate campus, residential, distribution facility or industrial product.”

Bids will be accepted until 10:30 a.m. on May 20, said Mara Burger, spokeswoman for the DEP’s Office of External Affairs.

Leaves and dust cover what used to be the recreation yard, tennis courts, hydroponic gardens and a relatively new warden’s residence along a country road that is bordered by cattle pastures, an occasional house and the upscale Ayersworth subdivision across the street.

In the two years ago this month since the prison padlocked its gates, the institution has been scrubbed from the Florida Department of Corrections website and its informational brochures.

Even Wikipedia no longer has a listing, and the Hillsborough Correctional Institution Facebook page lists it as permanently closed. Twelve people “like” the site on the Facebook page.

The end of the prison was blamed on numbers: Too few inmates for too many beds and the state could save $8.3 million a year by shuttering the only state prison in Hillsborough County and moving into other space.

The prison did not go down without a fight. Most of the battle was waged by a group of dedicated volunteers from nearby Sun City Center who went into the prison as part of a faith- and character-based program to mentor the women and teach them job and social skills.

Nancy Williams, a 68-year-old retiree from Sun City Center, was a regular mentor at the local prison and made the trip regularly to Marion County. Now she travels frequently to the Hernando Correctional Facility, which is where many of the former Hillsborough inmates have been moved.

“I’ve been doing this since 2004,” she said. “I tell them that I’ve been in prison 10 years and that’s longer than many of them.”

Williams now travels not only to Hernando County but to Bradenton, where she also works with female inmates. Her niche is introducing sports to inmates, teaching tennis and bringing in softball teams to play the prisoners. She also conducts an anger management class.

The closure of the Hillsborough prison doomed the faith- and character-based program undertaken by the Sun City Center volunteers.

“At a farewell for the ladies,” Williams said, “one stood up and said: ‘I want you to remember this: Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’ We have all clung to that. We always will treasure that. We’re just glad we all had that season.”

At the time, Hillsborough Correctional offered the only character- and faith-based program for Florida female inmates. The program featured one-on-one mentorships, classes in job skills and counseling with the volunteers. Backers maintained the program has helped lower recidivism and made a difference in the lives of many women.

When the 36-year-old prison closed in 2012, nearly 300 inmates and more than 100 prison employees were transferred elsewhere. It was part of a state move to consolidate prisons, and about a dozen prisons across the state were shut down. At the time, about 12,000 prison beds were empty.

A state analysis in 2011 ranked prisons on various categories and criticized Hillsborough Correctional Institution for having a high cost per inmate, high maintenance costs and a low inmate population.

Williams said she drove by the shuttered prison grounds a month or so ago.

“It’s all grown up there,” she said. “There are a lot of memories there. We saw the softball field, the hydroponic garden. They’re all overgrown now. It’s too bad.”

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