One person at a time, Haven of Hope wants to change that.
The new South County prison transitional ministry was founded by local women who have been mentoring female prisoners for years.
The group is currently searching for a home in Riverview or Ruskin where they can house the women, many of whom might otherwise be homeless, helping them make better life choices and saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
“We are now trying to raise funds to show we are a viable organization and be able to apply for grants,” said Haven of Hope’s president, Janet Smith.
Smith, a Sun City Center resident, was among a dedicated group of South County volunteers who ministered for years at the Hillsborough County Correctional Institution (HCI) in Riverview before it closed in 2012. The only prison in Florida with an all-female, character- and faith-based curriculum, HCI won praise for its low repeat-offender rates but fell victim to budget cuts.
Smith, who fought hard to keep HCI open, has not allowed her faith to flag. She still mentors former prisoners, driving regularly to Miami and Ocala to visit the women.
“We have seen that once a lot of people get out of prison, a lot of places will not rent to them because they have a record, and they also have trouble finding a job, so our program will provide them with a place to live until they can get on their feet,” Smith said. “A lot of these ladies will be homeless and on the street if they do not have a place to go to.”
Haven of Hope’s goal is to open a transitional house this year, probably in the Ruskin area. But Smith said the group is also looking in Riverview.
“We want to rent a home to start out,” said Smith, adding that the group would gladly accept a home as a donation. “We have volunteers who are willing to do repairs,” she said.
Once open, the home will serve five to eight women, all of whom would contribute rent once they find a job. A house mother would oversee the facility.
Haven of Hope is modeled on House of Hope, a similar program in Gainesville. Established in 1995, the faith-based program mentors former prisoners as they transition back into society. “If people stay in that program for one year, they have a 100 percent success rate,” Smith said.
Haven of Hope cites statistics showing that many released prisoners will be rearrested within one year of release. “We hope to break the cycle of incarceration in individual lives by providing spiritual, emotional and job support,” according to the group’s press release.
The average cost of incarceration for one prisoner was $28,893.40 in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a community corrections center in 2011 was $26,163. In larger cities like New York, the annual cost of confinement can top $167,000, according to a 2013 report by New York City’s Independent Budget Office.
Haven of Hope estimates that its program will cost $9,000 annually per resident.
With more than 3,800 women released every year by the Florida Department of Corrections, “these people can easily fall back into old habits of crime and drugs,” according to Haven of Hope. “By providing guidance and a means of a new life to ex-prisoners, Haven of Hope will help cut crime rates in Hillsborough County. By cutting the crime rate, we also cut the number of those who fall victim to crime.”
Female inmates’ recidivism rates are much lower than male inmates’ rates, according to Recidivism Rates and Gender for Inmates Released 2005-2012, a Florida Department of Corrections report released last year.
The recidivism rate refers to a person’s return to criminal behavior, often after they have been imprisoned.
At three years, the male recidivism rate in Florida is 30 percent while the female rate is 16 percent.
“While the average time served for males is 38 months, the average time served for females is only 24 months,” the report said. “Approximately 30 percent of female releases have some type of supervision to follow compared to 35 percent of males. These factors and others may explain some of the differences in the recidivism rate for males and females,” the report said.
A nonprofit volunteer-driven, faith-based support program, Haven of Hope aims to “minister to women whose lives have been devastated by crime, drugs, and alcohol in order to help them get on their feet during the critical time following their release.”
Organizers hope to achieve this by providing food, shelter, employment opportunities, life-skills training, and short-term Christian housing with a maximum of two stays in the program.
As a faith-based organization, organizers also hope to develop relationships with local churches for funding, donations and volunteers.
Haven of Hope does not receive any government funding. Members of the group’s board are Michael Jalazo, executive director of the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition; John Persinger, an HCI math tutor; and Patti Skovronsky.
“Women [in the program] are required to seek employment and go through a thorough discipleship process learning about who God is, their worth and value in Christ, and practically living out what it means to follow Jesus Christ by serving and loving His people before they reenter society,” according to the group’s release.
For more information on the program, call Smith at 317-441-7022 or email email@example.com.
For donations, make checks payable to Haven of Hope, P.O. Box 5261, Sun City Center, FL 33571.