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Lessons learned celebrating an unusual South County Christmas

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image Christmas on the compound at Hillsborough Correctional Institution last week incorporated both secular and religious features. Melody Jameson Photo

Christmas...but make no mistake, this is a state prison.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – A couple of families got together here last week to commemorate Christmas, 2011.

There were frivolity and food in abundance. Many colorful gift bags filled with goodies were distributed. Hugs, tears and repeated expressions of thanks were evident everywhere.

And, by the way, “Christ” was very much a part of this Christmas.

So, you might say, sounds like any traditional holiday celebration in these parts. Probably describes scenes common in living and dining rooms, on porches and decks, all over the rural region, you could assert, as the annual in-gathering of kith and kin unfolds.

Oh, but you’d be wrong. Actually, it was Christmas on the compound at Hillsborough Correctional Institution (HCI), Florida’s first faith-based and character-building prison for women. A place from which the resident family cannot drive away with the guests at the holiday’s end. A place where the visiting family is more likely to be teaching, counseling, mentoring volunteers than blood kin.

On the other hand, many of the usual signs of observance were there: the decorated trees in lobbies and chapel, gifts both tangible and intangible, especially made desserts to end a special meal and, above all, a mutual appreciation for the shared time.

Make no mistake, though, this is a state prison. Some 280 women, ranging from twenty-somethings to sixty-year-olds, are incarcerated here for felony crimes in the drug infraction categories up to murder in the first degree, notes Warden Robin Smith, a veteran corrections officer with 28 years of experience in the state penal system. There are short-timers counting the weeks to release dates and lifers who may never again know the freedoms of U.S. citizenship. They are in HCI because they asked to be.

Their compound is enclosed in high chain link fencing and encased in multiple rolls of wire. There are none of the views touted by real estate sellers on the outside. Their doorless cells in long barracks are charitably described as spare; no windows, no pictures on walls, no touches of color to relieve the monotonous shades of brown. A cot, a mattress, covering linens comprise the accommodations.

They wear the uniform gray pants and shirts day after day, week after week, month after month. They cannot smoke anywhere on prison property.

Some days, the only opportunities for human interaction are with guards or other inmates. Violating the rules can result in even more stringent confinement; a version of total isolation — or transfer to another institution.

Their days, most of them like the one before and the one following, are ordered to a degree by the work to be done. And, the essence of imprisonment is not only loss of even the smallest, once-taken-for-granted freedoms but also the loss of most privacy rights.

Beyond the disciplines and deprivations, however, are the missions of a facility such as HCI to help female inmates build self esteem through appropriate achievement and constructive acceptance, plus equip them with marketable skills that can lead to livelihoods upon release.

They have access to a substantial list of training and mentoring programs conducted on their compound by hundreds of volunteers, many of them retired professionals coming from surrounding communities such as Sun City Center and Valencia Lakes.

With the help of the trained volunteers, inmates can complete high school, obtaining a GED , or become proficient in computer and software use or obtain certification in culinary arts where they learn, for example, the same cake decorating skills practiced in Publix bakeries. There are classes in creative writing, in the dramatic arts and in the various media of the visual arts. The women can attend classes where the intricacies of fine sewing are taught and where the carpentry of wood products manufacture is covered in detail. They have a vegetable garden and are investigating hydroponics as a plant growing method.

Inmates can learn the ins and outs of dressing for success in today’s business world and command the elements of a resume and master the various tasks involved in personal financial management after instruction. They can take part in a “story time Mom” program where those with children read aloud to them by way of DVDs that then are sent to the youngsters.

They participate in several athletic activities – tennis, volleyball, pickle ball - learning about fitness in the process. They also can become members of work crews which handle tasks under supervision in public venues that otherwise would require tax payer dollars to accomplish with paid help.

And, of course, as inmates in a faith-based facility, they can attend Bible study sessions using the Christian Bible explored on a non-denominational basis. They also have access to study in other faiths, if that is their choice, Smith notes.

Then, there’s a new program under consideration that would pair inmates with young dogs from area shelters, the warden adds. It is envisioned that interested women would temporarily keep and train dogs in basic obedience, aiming to make the animal more adoptable when returned to the shelter.

All of this, and more, was acknowledged last week when the family of HCI inmates and their family of volunteers met on the compound for an afternoon of holiday delights, amid much laughter - and not a few tears shed in happiness and gratitude.

Gathered first in their chapel, 65 of the inmates offered their gift, a multi-act revue written, directed and produced for the fourth year by their fellow inmate, Denise Turbyville. They sang, danced and delivered comic routines as part of a story line calling for Christmas pageant auditions, with an underlying message about the genuine meaning of an observance that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.

Creating costumes fashioned from whatever fabric or borrowed garments they could lay hands on, many of them demonstrated, often with joyful abandon, native talents from solo interpretative dance to choral singing that would be competitive on many stages in the world beyond their fences. Others helped carry the storyline forward, performing in roles that held the production together and delivered the desired message emphasizing the value of fellowship over commercialism.

After the revue, many dozens of volunteers were served a full meal topped off with a choice of holiday cakes, including the traditional Red Velvet and Carrot varieties, baked and decorated by inmates in the culinary arts class which would like to sell some of its baked beauties. It also was an occasion to look back on a tumultuous year in which the prison was threatened with closure in a cost cutting move by Florida’s Department of Corrections and then spared with the help of crusading advocates, an outspoken state senator and Hillsborough County commissioners.

Before it was over, Smith and her assistant warden, Angel Velez, were presented hand made quilts designed and created by sewing class members as the two were praised for their efforts, bringing on another tearful moment. This time, it was Smith, the no-nonsense lady warden, whose eyes shown as she expressed appreciation and tried to focus on the integral part in the prison’s progress played by volunteers, while Velez discreetly extended a fresh handkerchief.

More tears surfaced when volunteers lined a walkway on the compound and inmates queued up to receive large gift bags distributed by Santa and filled through $7,000 contributed by the volunteer force. Embracing ensued as members of each family shared one last moment of togetherness, of gratitude, of caring, of understanding what Christmas is.

Recidivism or the rate of return to prison among HCI inmates completing their sentences and leaving the penal system is less than 14 percent, Smith says. That figure suggests that at least 86 percent of the discharged women inmates find their way back to constructive lives, on more solid footing, able to earn livings and to deal with the challenges – maybe even with some good memories of life-altering imprisonment.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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