After more than three decades keeping lawbreakers off the streets, the Hillsborough Correctional Institution — nestled in the pine forests and oak hammocks of Riverview — stands empty.
Shuttered two months ago to save money, the center has been pitched as a transitional unit for male prisoners in the last year of their sentences. That proposal now appears dead amid rumors the Florida Department of Corrections plans to sell the facility.
The Drug Abuse and Comprehensive Coordinating Office, or DACCO, had hoped to use the former prison to house its inmate re-entry program, also funded by the Department of Corrections.
The re-entry program, still in the works, would offer GED classes, substance-abuse treatment and vocational skills training for up to 60 men a year, according to a resolution presented to the county commission last month.
DACCO, created through a government-business partnership and now helping more than 25,000 people a year, is planning its own center but it won't be built until next year.
Meantime, it looked at the HCI facility and contacted the Department of Corrections. But bureaucracy got in the way, and in the end, the deal fell through, DACCO Chief Executive Officer Mary Lynn Ulrey said last week.
"It would have been an interim place to start," Ulrey said, "and, if we could have leased it for long period of time, that would be great. It was bigger than what we needed, but it would have met our needs."
That's not to say the re-entry program won't happen. DACCO won a contract from the Department of Corrections eight months ago; it just won't happen until next year.
The program requires a staff of about 30 people.
About 5,000 inmates are released from prison each year and return to Hillsborough County, Ulrey said. The county has no program to ease the transition from prison to civilian life for eligible convicted felons.
She said department officials told her they wanted to sell the property, likely within six months. Corrections officials wouldn't confirm that.
"What's going to happen with HCI? We don't know yet," said department spokeswoman Ann Howard this week. She said rumors abound, but "so far, nobody's come to us with anything official.
"So, right now," she said, "we have no plans for the building. But we'll figure it out."
Currently, a couple of employees remain to help tie up loose ends. At one point, there were more than 100 employees there, said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, another spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
All staff members will be out by June 30, she said, when an assessment of the building is scheduled to be completed, Rackleff said.
The DACCO plan did draw support from the Hillsborough County Commission, which unanimously passed a resolution last month endorsing the proposed lease.
"That's a perfect use for it," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, in whose district the prison lies.
Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections turned a deaf ear to pleas to keep the facility open, mostly from hundreds of volunteers who helped out at the center, which in its most recent incarnation was a women's prison.
Volunteers sent letters to the governor and his staff, the Department of Corrections and legislators protesting the prison's shuttering.
The prison, which could house 300 women, was shut down in a budget slashing move by the state. The inmates were moved to Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County.
The department in January targeted a handful of prisons across the state for closing, saying there was a drop in the number of inmates and the space was no longer needed. The department said it was trying to cut $64 million from its annual budget.
Shuttering HCI will save more than $8.3 million a year.