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State plans to close seven prisons by July 1

Directed by Gov. Rick Scott to save $64 million in operating costs, the state Department of Corrections on Thursday will announce plans to close down seven prisons, including all-women prisons in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

Closing prisons is highly controversial because it disrupts state workers and the families of inmates and can wreak havoc on the economy of a small town dependent on prison employment. But with the inmate population declining and a large capacity of excess beds, prisons chief Kenneth Tucker says the closings are unavoidable. 

"This is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," Tucker said Thursday in an exclusive interview at his office. "But the reality of it is, there was no way to avoid this."

The prisons targeted for closure by July 1 are Hillsborough Correctional in Riverview, Florida's only faith-based prison for women; Broward Correctional in Pembroke Pines; Indian River, a youthful offender lockup; New River; Gainesville; DeMilly in Polk County; and Jefferson C.I., located in Monticello. Tucker told the Times/Herald that closings will begin next month, and that the list of prison closings does not require legislative approval.

Florida's crime rate has been steadily declining in recent years. The inmate population is hovering around 100,000 and there are 112,000 prison beds, with about 4,000 more under construction that were approved years ago before the inmate population began shrinking. The state has built a brand new 1,500-bed prison in Lowell, near Ocala, that sits empty and unopened.  

The state developed a detailed criteria for evaluating every prison in the system, including per-inmate costs, operating and maintenance costs, the age of the buildings and proximity to other prisons. But the decision to shut Hillsborough is sure to be controversial with some legislators. The prison made last year's "hit list" but residents of nearby Sun City Center, a retirement center, successfully lobbied to keep the prison open.

-- Steve Bousquet