For a number of years, if you wanted to find me on Christmas morning you just needed to come to the Women’s Correctional Facility (aka “prison”) in Riverview (Sun City Center) in southern Hillsborough County. I found the true meaning of modern Christmas there with about fifty inmates who would come to Mass on Christmas morning and a cadre of incredibly dedicated women and men, mostly from Prince of Peace parish in Sun City Center. There was more “joy to the world” to be found in that facility on Christmas day than I or anyone else ever had a right to expect. I was unable to make it this year which I now regret more than ever as Governor Rick Scott’s administration has decided to close the facility for lack of funds. What made this prison so different?
During the administration of Governor Jeb Bush, it was decided that the state would experiment with “faith based” prison facilities. Its population would consist of men and women (separate facilities around the state) who petitioned to be sent to an incarceration facility during the time of serving their sentence where they could do a number of things to prepare better for the time when they would be released or paroled. In the case of the Hillsborough facility, the women applied, were recommended by their present prison staff, and allowed to transfer to not exactly a minimum security facility, but one which would allow them more freedom inside and give them an opportunity to deepen their faith and their skills. I think it worked beautifully and so would many of those volunteers in prison ministry who went there every week to meet, pray with, and support the prisoners. How I will long remember the great Gospel choir that would spend time every December preparing to sing Christmas carols at the Catholic Mass. Several of the inmates were confirmed by me while present and others entered the Church. It was all good from my perspective and for the state spending money on a type of prison where select inmates could prepare more easily for the day of their release. Governor Bush’s idea worked in Riverview by almost everyone’s judgment.
Now it is to close and the women returned to the more challenging environments from which some of them already had come. While not privy to the details of daily life and working, I am under the impression that there were far less inmate problems there than in the other state facilities. And to add insult to injury, in my judgment, some local politicians see the possibility of an empty prison as an answer to Hillsborough county’s woeful neglect of the homeless. If I had a wish, it would be that this facility not close but should it that a prison is the worst place to house the homeless, especially one which can only be reached by transportation in a police car or van.
Why do great ideas seem to fall as first victims to the budget axe? Heartfelt thanks to the volunteers from Sun City Center who befriended these women behind bars, led them back to faith, and lightened their lives not just on Christmas but throughout the year. Our state is making a bad mistake closing these facilities and it is a tragic and almost heartless consequence of these times in which we are living.
To the women of the Riverview Correctional Facility, thanks for the wonderful memories and the most precious Christmas gift I have received over the years, spending that morning with you praising God and searching for peace on earth and good will among all women and men.