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Equal treatment could be critical to inmates’ futures

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image Before they vacated the closing Hillsborough Correctional Institution last week, about 100 of the remaining women inmates gathered for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Nancy Williams

It may not be a “perfect world,” she concluded “but this (HCI) is a perfect program for these women.”

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – As the Hillsborough Correctional Institution here is being mothballed over the outspoken objections of inmates, volunteers and legislators, a supportive but thin legal thread remains untied down.

It came out of an attempt to forestall the closure by Florida’s Department of Corrections with a court-ordered injunction initiated by an inmate and filed by a sympathetic Tallahassee attorney. A Leon County circuit court judge denied the injunction plea but left the door open to a possible, eventual declaratory judgment based on an equal treatment argument.

That argument, however, can be returned to the courtroom only by some of the women prisoners relocated to the Lowell Reception Center, a new section of the massive Lowell correctional complex near Ocala. And they must experience life at Lowell in order to make it.

In the meantime, several inmates of Florida’s first faith-based, character-building prison for women with a remarkably low recidivism rate and a volunteer base of mentors or teachers numbering in the hundreds, shared their reflections with The Observer.

Patsy Mae Caksackkar, like hundreds of others, tried in February to persuade Gov. Rick Scott and Ken Tucker, acting secretary for the state corrections system, of HCI’s importance. She related how she arrived at HCI nearly three years ago, coming from Lowell C.I. in a wheelchair “emotionally and physically crippled.” Today, she said, in HCI “I have recovered. I can walk and I contribute daily…”

That recovery she attributed to the encouragement of “being treated with respect” as a human being by staff on the HCI compound, regaining “my identity” and a renewed sense of self worth.

She referred to the 22 certificates she earned at HCI upon completing a number of classes. At Lowell, she added, she could take just five classes during more than seven years there. She pointed to “512 volunteers and mentors” at HCI, noting “I only knew eight volunteers at Lowell.” In that facility, she stated, “you lose your self-esteem and no one is there to help you.”

It may not be a “perfect world,” she concluded “but this (HCI) is a perfect program for these women.”

Shelli Stone was raised in a single-parent household, surrounded by a substantial, loving family after her father’s death when she was five years old, she said. But, at 17 she was pregnant. Yet, by her 18th birthday she had finished high school and was enrolled in a community college. Then, she inherited a $40,000 lump sum.

It opened the door to “the party lifestyle,” addiction to ecstasy and heroin, check forgery and grand theft, she admitted. And, in May, 1998, Shelli Stone, driving a stolen vehicle, was involved in a high speed chase ending in a crash that killed a sheriff’s deputy and her own passenger. She survived to get a 34-year sentence for multiple counts, including vehicular homicide.

Imprisoned in Lowell, she became a certified law clerk and in 2007 came to HCI, planning to continue the work. She completed more than 15 classes and became deeply involved in faith-related activities, she said. “HCI works!,” she asserted. “My mind has been renewed and my heart has been transformed.” It’s important that HCI be maintained, she added, that an institution with the highest number of volunteer hours in the state and the lowest recidivism rate be saved “not just for me, but for the other Shelli Stones who really want to change…become better people.”

A current five-year sentence for trafficking and forging prescriptions is not Natasha Smith’s first brush with prison. She was incarcerated in 2003 at Lowell where “I saw drugs, sex and alcohol pretty much on an everyday basis,” she said. “I fit right in…I had that mentality, that’s what life is about.” She went on to work release and soon was back on the street doing the same thing. “Why?” she asked rhetorically, “Because I never stopped…simply was warehoused with people of like sickness…”

After coming to HCI in 2010, Smith completed a Toastmasters International course, enrolled in the Jacksonville Baptist Seminary aiming for a degree in seminary studies and has earned certificates in Culinary Arts and Cake Decorating, training under Chef Rubye Maria Tarrant.

When released this time, she said, she plans to make two goals her reality: pastor a church and partner with a family member in establishing a restaurant. Her business plan names it “Heavenly Tastes.” She’ll still be in her 30s, she asserted, and ready to be a role model for her seven children. She calls herself “the prodigal daughter” and her prison “a blessing.”

It was all of this that Plaintiff and HCI Inmate Denise Turbeville was attempting to preserve when her Emergency Petition for Injunctive Relief was filed in Leon County’s Circuit Court. Her petition argued that s944.803 (2) in Florida’s statutes requires phasing out faith based and self-improvement “dormitories” in favor of faith and character based “institutions” only. Closing HCI, an institution, to transfer its inmates to the new Lowell Reception Center, a two-dormitory facility, violates the statutory mandate, Turbeville’s petition asserted.

Judge Terry Lewis denied the petition’s request for an injunction to halt the HCI closure, but indicated that a case might be made for equal protection under the law, meaning that DOC must provide equally for both female and male prisoners. The DOC website indicates it operates three facilities for men in the state that focus exclusively on faith-based, character-building programs. With closure of HCI, however, none of equal caliber will remain for women.

It is a position that was reiterated time and again as the hundreds of volunteers who had led classes, managed athletic programs, served as mentors, generously supported and continuously shared their knowledge since 2004 began advocating for the prison. They flooded state offices with emails and telephone calls that were neither acknowledged nor returned, noted an angry Don Dionne, long-time volunteer who indicated his outlook will be reflected by his vote in the next gubernatorial election.

It was among the points asserted by state legislators such as Sen. Ronda Storms and Rep. Rich Glorioso and Rep. Darryl Rouson who disputed the figures DOC used to support its argument for closure and fought to set aside funds in the state budget for repair and maintenance of an expanded HCI. Their efforts were wiped out as the 2012 legislative session came to a close by the same Polk County senator, term-limited JD Alexander, who tried to slash some $50 million from the University of South Florida budget allocations and succeeded in laying ground work for a new university in Lakeland.

And it’s an assertion HCI’s former inmates again might make if the Lowell Reception Center programs do not compare favorably with those provided at their former facility and the Lowell center does not meet the statutory standard , another Tallahassee attorney indicated this week.

Rhonda Bennett, who practices with Dean LeBoeuf, the lawyer who filed Turbeville’s injunction petition, noted that a motion for a declaratory judgment could be pressed if it can be shown what is provided the women at the Lowell Reception Center does not fully equal that provided male prisoners. At the moment, she said, it’s a matter of “wait and see.”

In the interim, the 36-year-old institution on C.R. 672 that once housed youthful first offenders, then adult male inmates and finally for eight years fostered a reputation for counseling, encouraging, inspiring female prisoners to turn their lives around is being shuttered permanently. Its legacy is its success in really rehabilitating, not merely warehousing.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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