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Breaking bonds painful for prison inmates, volunteers

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“I’ve never seen a program like this one. Take the program with you and don’t quit. Just do not quit!”

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Tearfully, their laughter leavened with sadness, the hopefulness tinged with regret, bonds forged over years between inmates and volunteers loosened here last week.

Striving for a positive spin on a long-dreaded event – closure of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution – the facility’s female prisoners served their mentors and teachers for the last time Thursday with large cookies, rich chocolate bars and decorated sheet cake made in their culinary classes.

And, then, filling their prison chapel to capacity, together they rocked the rafters with song, shared appreciations, cried and counseled through their tears.

Florida Representative Rich Glorioso, a member of the Hillsborough legislative delegation who worked at the state level to keep HCI open, had to pause to regain composure as he asked assembled inmates to hang on to their HCI experience now that they’re moving to another facility. “We all want you to be successful,” he asserted seriously, then added “I’m a good Republican, I want you to go forth in the world, work and pay taxes” as laughter rippled through the crowd.

Long time volunteer Janet Smith, struggling to hold back tears, quoted the Biblical advice given by St. Paul, “learn to be content in whatever state you are.”

And veteran corrections officer Sgt. David Schaffer, noting that he’s been on the job for decades, asserted “I’ve never seen a program like this one. Take the program with you and don’t quit. Just do not quit!”

Dr. Ken Barringer, retired psychologist and a prison volunteer for nearly 10 years, spoke of the “drastic changes in your lives” that he has witnessed, adding “I thank you for that. May God bless you all of your lives.”

For their part, inmates lined up at a microphone to express their gratitude and their regrets. One referred emphatically to her “six wonderful years at HCI, learning to love.” Today, she added, “I am somebody. Thank you.”

Another spoke of the benefits she has reaped from participation in the prison’s multi-faceted crafts and sewing instruction program. “I have learned to give back,” she allowed and then added impishly, “about $200,000 worth of giving back,” referring to the value of the program’s charitable donations.

One of the women with substantial prison experience called attention to the vast difference between the HCI compound and other facilities. “We know every day we are loved,” she said, referring to the courtesy extended HCI inmates by staff and volunteers alike. As a result, she added, “my children will have a good mother when I get out and my mother won’t be getting phone calls in the middle of the night.“ The reason, she reiterated, is “my prison family and God’s help.”

Still others voiced their amazement that “anyone would fight for a prison” and talked of the value as well as values of the prison family and noted regretfully that they will not be able to pursue courses of study or complete classes for certification as the HCI programs ended this week even though the instructional timeframes did not. The same subjects are not expected to be duplicated where they are going.

HCI’s inmate population is to be transferred to a new two-dormitory addition to the Lowell women’s prison complex near Ocala in Marion County. The facility is known as the Lowell Reception Center and anticipated to accommodate about 1,300 women prisoners. Many of the HCI staff also are to be shifted to parts of the Lowell complex, including HCI Warden Robin Smith, Deputy Warden Angel Velez, and R. Maria Tarrant, known fondly as “Chef T,” director of the culinary arts program at HCI, plus some of the corrections officers.

Neither Smith nor Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Corrections in Tallahassee, could provide exact relocation dates. Smith said she expects to begin work at Lowell next week.

Asked about any plans for use of the 120-acre HCI campus with substantial road frontage and containing several staff residences as well as other functional buildings, Rackleff said she had heard nothing about final disposition of the property. Its ownership, she added, reverts to Florida’s Department of Management Services for sale or leasing.

And when pressed about possible sale of any of the larger Florida prisons where prisoners now are being consolidated to one or more of the for-profit commercial prison corporations in the market to buy, the DOC spokeswoman replied that to the best of her knowledge state administrators are not considering “any such idea.”

Smith also told The Observer this week that she had heard nothing about any future uses of the HCI campus. She noted, too, that she foresees HCI inmates may find the new Lowell Reception Center and its programs as rehabilitative and encouraging as their experiences locally have been.

A pending legal action filed by an inmate on behalf of the HCI population disputes that perception, though, claiming that the new faith-based dormitory facility at Lowell does not meet the statutory standard mandated for women prisoners.

 In addition, not all HCI personnel and supporters are sold on reasoning advanced for the facility shuttering and relocation of inmates. Staff members comment privately they believe the closure is a mistake being implemented without concern for inmate welfare, but for politically influenced financial reasons. Several area legislators also have suggested the DOC justification for the closure is based on faulty calculations as well as misrepresentations. And one volunteer leader declared emphatically he will not vote to retain Scott as governor because of his indifference and unresponsiveness in the face of inmate, volunteer and community pleas for consideration.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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