Outside the prison library, the women were waiting for their teacher, holding a copy of their newspaper, trying to decide what to do. • They had named the paper Time Flys. Their teacher didn't correct the spelling. • They had spent a month reporting and writing, collecting photos and quotes and jailhouse recipes. Inmate #071 had two-finger typed six long pages. Finally, the October issue was ready. • They had planned to pass it out during writing class. They had told their bunkies they would bring back copies. Promised their kids they would mail some home. • But now the guards were saying they couldn't distribute it. The officers didn't want their names in the inmates' paper — even if the article was a "shout-out" to those who had helped. And the warden deemed another article "too racy." • After five issues, the inmates were being censored. They were angry, upset and confused. • "What if we just take out all the officers' names?" asked one reporter. • "We were just trying to include them," said the typist. • "Let's all take a step back and breathe," offered the columnist. "This is a publication by inmates, for inmates, right? At least it's ours."
Hillsborough Correctional Institution is on the east side of Tampa Bay, in a rural area off U.S. 301, set in the center of 131 grassy acres. Two tall metal fences surround the single-story compound. Six loops of razor wire fortify the fences. It is one of three in the state that focuses on faith and character development. Inmates have to meet a set of criteria to get into the program.
Here, 287 women are serving sentences of three years to life. The youngest is 22, the oldest 71. Some have been behind bars more than half their lives.
Their crimes include robbery and drug dealing, child abuse and killing a cop. Some acts were intentional. Others just reckless.
Here, it doesn't matter. You're all in this place together.
You all get up at 5:30 a.m. when the fluorescent lights blare above your bunk. You all scramble for a shower before the barely warm water runs out. You all pull on the same scratchy gray scrubs and heavy state-issue work boots. And you all trudge together to the mess hall for powdered eggs.
Here, it often seems every day is the same and nothing is happening.
But when you mark the small moments around you, you start to realize you're doing more than just time.
• • •
Just after 6 p.m., a tiny woman with raspberry hair walked toward the library, flanked by an armed guard. "Hello ladies!" she called.
"Hey, Miss Charna!" said the columnist.
Charna Bogdany, 81, lives in Sun City Center. After her husband died, she got bored watching PBS alone every evening. So she started volunteering at the women's prison a few miles down the road.
She had never been to a prison. Even after more than a year of weekly visits, she isn't used to the metal detector that her artificial knee always sets off, or the guard who pats her down to make sure she's not smuggling in paperclips.
"We got the newspaper," the typist told her. "But they won't let us hand it out."
"I heard," said the teacher. "So what are you going to do?"
• • •
When Miss Charna started the class in August 2009, she called it "creative writing." She thought the women would want to write memoirs, hoped it would be a sort of therapy.
But after a few months of basic instruction on structure, foreshadowing and finding your voice, the inmates pitched their own project.
"We want to make a newspaper," declared Shelly Brown, a 37-year-old mother of three who is serving 12 years for attempted murder.
"We want to share stuff that's going on around here," said Debra Nelson, 48, doing six years for drug trafficking.
The women don't have computers. Some have been locked up since long before there were laptops.
But Shelli Stone has access to an old Dell because she is a law clerk in the library. If the women wrote their stories by hand, neatly, she could type them into a template.
"I don't really type," said Stone, 35. "But I can try. I've got plenty of time." Thirty-four years, to be exact. She was convicted of negligent homicide and vehicular manslaughter.
Miss Charna asked warden Rhodene Mathis for permission. Mathis agreed, as long as she got final review. "We were surprised at the quality of their writing," said the assistant warden, Lynn Hayes. "There's a lot of wasted talent in here."
• • •
Miss Charna had edited newsletters, but she had never worked at a newspaper. She bought books, e-mailed reporters, signed up for a writing seminar.
She taught the inmates about interviewing, had them practice on each other. She explained the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. "Just write like you talk," she said. "Tell me a true story, something you care about."
It took six women six months to produce the initial edition: one page the size of a legal pad, stories filling the front and back, with clip art of a clock in the masthead.
"INTRODUCING 'TIME FLYS', THE FIRST ISSUE OF YOUR CAMPUS NEWS FLYER," the front page headline screamed.
The drama class was producing its first play, "A comical production written by one of our own," said a story on the front page. The library had three new books including Sue Grafton's T Is for Trespass. "June 5 there will be a HAIR SHOW in the gym at 1 p.m."
Five inmates had earned their GEDs. Six had June birthdays. One had been voted "artist of the month."
Their names were in that issue. Their real names. Not the DOC number printed on the patch they have to wear over their hearts.
"And you know what?" asked Brown. "Even the officers were reading it. Because of our newspaper, now they know our names."
• • •
The librarian printed 50 copies of that first issue.
Brown mailed one to her 12-year-old daughter, another to her teenage sons, so they could see what her life in prison is like. She had been a good mom, a hospice nurse, before getting hooked on crack. She had never been arrested — until that night she helped her drug dealer beat up a guy. They spent three days on the run. She hasn't seen her sons in five years.
Stone showed the paper to her 17-year-old daughter when she came to visit. When her daughter was 5, Stone did heroin, drove around Orlando with her boyfriend, and crashed trying to get away from a cop. The police officer and Stone's daughter's dad died in the accident — and Stone missed seeing her daughter grow up. Now her daughter is pregnant. Stone won't get out for 18 more years, so she won't get to enjoy being a grandmother either.
The women sob when they talk about their pasts. They would rather live in the present, in prison, where the newspaper made them instant celebrities. When that first issue came out, everyone was talking about Time Flys, passing it around, asking about the next edition. Did you see they're starting a shuffleboard club? Happy birthday, Tara! Congratulations, Tabitha!
A favorite feature was the "Ongoing Sitcom: Daisy steps out," which Brown wrote. Daisy is Brown's alter ego, a sunshiny everywoman who lets herself feel things that some real inmates shut out.
"This is it OMG! I'm nervous, my stomach is fluttering with excitement. For the first time in four years of being trapped like a rat by a chain link fence and razor wire I, Daisy, have a gate pass!"
And, of course, everyone loved the recipes. Who knew you could create such delicacies with hot water and canteen condiments?
"Men sit around in prison carving shanks and thinking of ways to get out," said Stone. "We sit around craving lasagna, wondering how we can make it with ketchup packets."
The first recipe was Beef Stew Potatoes: Crumble sour cream chips, add squeeze-on cheddar cheese and a pouch of beef stew mix. Crush a bag of cheese puffs on top. Add water to consistency . . .
The final instruction? "Dig in and ENJOY!"
• • •
In the stuffy classroom in the back of the library, a dozen women slid into desks, facing their teacher. Each Thursday, the number of inmates showing up for creative writing has grown by at least one.
They had planned to talk about the November newspaper. But now they had to come up with a way to save the October edition.
"We should just go ahead and kill that shout-out to the officers and figure out something else to put in there," said Brown.
They could make that feature on the tennis teacher longer. Add a photo.
"Oh, and I interviewed my bunkmate. She's leaving soon, after 35 years," said another inmate. "She shot her boyfriend. Or maybe it was her husband. Anyway, she's just been an inspiration to all of us because she's always so positive."
Miss Charna promised to find space for that feature. Someone actually getting out? Now that was news.
"We have to pull this month's installment of Daisy anyway," Miss Charna told them. The warden didn't like the beginning: "Oooh weee, I got to see MEN!" Or the ending: "Do you ever think about how you will react to having a relationship again with the opposite sex when you go home? I mean, especially after being locked up for 10, 15, 20 years?"
"Daisy got a little out of control this time," warden Mathis said later. "Some of the things the women talk about amongst themselves just aren't suitable to be in print. We know how much they all look forward to their newspaper. We just have to make sure its content is appropriate."
After two hours, guards came to count heads and lock the library. "Don't worry!" Miss Charna called. "I'll get this new version approved, and we'll pass out the papers next week!"
• • •
What happened to Wendi Hird after she got out of prison? "Wendi chose a home church and met a God-fearing man," said a front page story in the July edition. "Because Chaplain Henry had made such an impact on her life, he was asked to officiate their marriage."
After 18 years behind bars, what did Debbie Carlino worry about when she was finally released? "Wondering if I'll remember how to answer the phone when it rings," another story reported.
The inmates covered graduation for the GED students. Wrote an obit for a volunteer chaplain. Started an "Ask a Nurse" column.
And though they set out to share information, to have something to do, they wound up producing much more than printed pages: a sense of pride and community; knowledge of their neighbors; news to discuss; accomplishments to applaud.
These women can't have hair dryers or hot plates, can't decide when to wake up or what to wear, can't drive or cook or hug their kids. But once a month, they can read about their corner of the world. And know they matter.
"It makes us feel more normal," Brown said. "Things are happening, people do care, even in here."
"ATTENTION: OUTSIDE GROUNDS AND MOW CREW," she wrote for the next issue. "You are hereby acknowledged for the hard work you do. Going forth among the poison ivy, reptiles, insects and mutant grasshoppers that karate kick you in the neck when you walk through their hood . . .
"MAY A CLOUD COVER THE SUN IN YOUR TIME OF NEED."
• • •
Inside the prison library, the women were waiting.
Two inmates had parked themselves in front of the circulation desk. Three more were sitting in the magazine section.
They had come to pick up the October edition.
"What? It isn't here yet? I'm supposed to get four copies for my friends on work squad," said Christie Mann, 29.
When Miss Charna walked in carrying a canvas bag, her staff descended on her. "Do you have it? Can we hand it out?"
Yes, yes, the teacher laughed, giving them 200 copies. October's edition has six pages. The warden had approved all the edits.
"Daisy has the flu. See ya next time," Brown wrote where her column should have been. "Achooo!!!"
"Come on ladies," she called. "Let's get out there and do this."
They passed out two dozen issues in the library. They started to take stacks to the medical wing, to the lobby and dorms. But the guard wouldn't let them leave the library property.
So they stood on the sidewalk, waving their papers in the air, shouting, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825. Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An incorrect first name for Charna Bogdany appeared near the end a story Sunday about women prisoners making their own newspaper.