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Area volunteers report on changes for inmates moved from HCI

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image Myrna Persinger and Sharon Whiddon read portions of letters Whiddon has received from women who were transferred out of Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview when it was closed in March. Penny Fletcher Photo

The reports are varied, depending on the experience of each particular inmate.

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — While they were at Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, women inmates had access to many programs started and maintained by approximately 400 South County mentors and volunteers.

When the local prison was closed March 29, the inmates were transferred to Lowell Reception Center in Ocala. Since then, many South County volunteers have visited and received letters from those they formerly visited and mentored, while others who can’t drive the distance call each other and ask about these inmates’ new lives.

The reports are varied, depending on the experience of each particular inmate.

The Riverview facility was “Faith and Character Based,” which was a new premise at a women’s facility under the Florida Department of Corrections. It has been reported by both inmates and visitors that although staff at Lowell is trying to make adjustments to allow for dorms of “Faith and Character Based” inmates, many of them say their lives are just not the same.

The general opinion of everyone interviewed, and also from the letters sent by inmates and one former inmate, now living in Tampa who spoke anonymously, is that the volunteers in South County who regularly visited HCI made a huge difference in these women’s lives and their efforts — even if separated — will never be forgotten. 

“But it’s all different now,” said Myrna Persinger on August 31. “My husband used to teach a Bible study while I volunteered doing other things, but now he drives me up there and sits in the car while I see the women I mentor.”
This is because the male-female visitor rules there are different, she explained.

“I used to go out there several times a week,” Myrna said. “But Ocala is a long way.”

Sharon Whiddon, head of the prison ministry for Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Sun City Center, held chaplain status at HCI so the chapel could remain open when the prison chaplain was not with them. A retired psychiatric nurse, she also supervised a mentoring program.

“There has been a lot of confusion, with rules changing and not all the staff understanding the difference in philosophy with a faith-based program,” Whiddon said.

She explained that not only does the “faith-based status” mean inmates are treated more as individuals and not talked to in derogatory terms, but they also had a lot of betterment programs to choose from at HCI that had been created and were being kept up by volunteers.

“The inmates were greeted (at Lowell) with mass confusion and chaos and items that had been provided at HCI by volunteers — as simple as footies – were taken away from us,” said a former inmate who spoke anonymously in a telephone interview Sept. 1. “Many of the inmates who were already there treated us as though we thought we were better than they were and said we’d been spoiled.”

This sentiment was echoed in many of the letters received by Whiddon and Persinger.

“The friend I visit there says she can’t relate to the staff-appointed peers who sit as leaders in programs that replace volunteers,” said Kathleen Danco. “Let’s say you’re in an anger management group. Are you going to say the same thing knowing it could get out to everyone in the place that you would have said privately to a volunteer you’ve grown to trust?”

Despite the reported confusion and loss, some inmates want their long-time South County volunteers to know there have been some changes for the better recently.

Sun City Center resident Nancy Williams has visited the women several times and is working with Warden Robin Smith and Katherine Van Zant (wife of Florida House of Representatives Charles Van Zant) to begin hosting programs there.
Williams visited Lowell as recently as Aug. 28 and said what she found was very encouraging.

“They’ve brought in a beekeeping program and many books. Crafts classes have been started and the women have made tote bags for Joshua House and quilts for the VA. I plan to have a Tennis Fun Day some time this month. I had one in the spring, but then I went up North for the summer,” Williams said.

When HCI was open, Williams was very active in volunteering, starting with inspirational programs in her ‘Fruit of the Spirit’ classes that covered things like anger management, music, creative writing and Bible study. She later developed sports programs there with the help of many volunteers.

“I’ve been asked by the warden (at Lowell) if I can coordinate a sports program there,” Williams said. “Things like this just take time.”

Meanwhile, one way the volunteers and inmates can keep in touch is by letters and cards.

“Nobody knows just how much it means to the women to know their volunteers still care and have not forgotten them,” said Danco, who has also been to Lowell as a visitor recently. “This means the world to them.”

Many lives were changed as inmates began to look at themselves – and others — in a whole new way under the faith-based program at HCI.

The volunteers interviewed said they had bonded with those they mentored just like family.

“I miss the women at HCI very much and am writing letters to 12 of them who were in the Crafts and Convictions program,” said Sun City Center resident Barbara Gingrich. “They seem to love getting the letters and tell me how much they miss the volunteers that kept them focused.”

At first – in May and June — most of the letters were cries for help, Gingrich said. They did not like the new facility and missed the glimpses of freedom offered to them at HCI. But now she said, some report how they are adjusting.

“There are new rules. The crafts room is much smaller and only accommodates half of the ladies who previously worked there. But just last week I was told they have crocheted more than 50 caps for women who are undergoing chemotherapy, made quilts for wounded veterans and journals and cards for school children.”

Gingrich collects (blank) cards and stamps to send the women she visits so they will be able to send them to their friends and families.

“And I continue to mentor the young lady I have grown to love and cherish, only now I do it by letter,” she continued. “I have visited her twice since she moved and it means so much to her — and to me. I miss my volunteering at the prison and wish I could do more.”

This continues to be the sentiment of all the volunteers interviewed for this story.

To find out more about the Lowell Reception Center and its visitation and gifting rules, visit www.dc.state.fl.us/facilities/region3/368.html.

Information about contacting inmates and/or staff is available at www.dc.state.fl.us/orginfo/contact.html.

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