When Hillsborough Correctional Institution closed in March 2012, volunteer Nancy Williams knew wherever the state sent the inmates, it would not be the same.
At Hillsborough, a women's faith-and-character-based facility, the guards did not wear guns. The inmates walked freely on a campus with grassy hills and well-tended shrubbery. Inspired by the prison's more than 200 volunteers, they set goals to re-enter society.
Williams and fellow volunteers, the majority from Sun City Center, acted as daily mentors. They started craft and sports programs, taught classes, encouraged spiritual exploration and built a meditation garden. When news of Hillsborough closing hit in the summer of 2011, they traveled to Tallahassee to protest the decision, postponing the closing for nearly a year.
Eventually, the volunteers lost the battle but for some, the work continues.
About once a month, Williams makes the two-hour drive north to the Lowell Reception Center in Ocala, where she continues to work with some of the former Hillsborough inmates who are now part of a faith-and-character based program initiated in April 2012.
"We called it 'Camp Hillsborough' and there is never going to be another place like it," Williams said. "But this is about the ladies. We couldn't just say goodbye."
The maximum security facility, built to house up to 1,345 women, has two cell units and six open bay housing units, two of which are now faith-and-character dorms. Each dorm sleeps 172 inmates, all of whom participate in a program designed to build character and teach skills usable outside prison walls. Class topics include life mapping and responsible living. All are taught by volunteers.
For Williams, the volunteer experience is different but the goal remains the same.
"When I go through security, it's less casual than Hillsborough, if that's a word you can use talking about prison," she said. "But I've gotten to know a lot of the officers at Lowell and I feel welcome. I've adjusted."
Sharon Whiddon, also a former Hillsborough volunteer, carpools with Williams to help at Lowell. She assists with a tennis clinic and line dancing classes.
"Anything we can do, we do," Whiddon said. "It's a challenge for everybody (former Hillsborough inmates and volunteers) but things are coming along. Things change."
Williams said of the inmates transferred from Hillsborough, some seem settled at Lowell, others struggle.
"I think it has a lot to do with their spiritual lives," she said. "Some have adjusted and some have not. I can't say they are all happy and content in a maximum security facility."
Like with Hillsborough, inmates must apply to enter the faith-and-character program at Lowell Reception. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, they must meet behavioral guidelines. Completion of an enrollment workbook is also required.
Once accepted, inmates can participate in culinary arts, beekeeping or wastewater management training. Mommy Reads, a literacy program where inmates learn to read and then record audiobooks to send home to their children, is also available.
About 700 volunteers, most from Marion County, serve the faith-and-character program at Lowell Reception, according to Djuna Poole, assistant warden of programs. Of those about five come from Hillsborough, she said.
Whiddon said she has lost touch with many of the Hillsborough volunteers. For most, Lowell is just too far to drive, she said. Others decided to volunteer elsewhere or take on new projects.
Whiddon gives additional time at Hernando Correctional Institution. She writes letters of recommendation for former Hillsborough inmates seeking transfer or applying for work release. She sends stamps to the inmates.
Williams said she has no plans to give up on prison ministry. She also volunteers at Bradenton Bridges, a female work-release facility closer to Sun City Center. At Christmas, she helped give out holiday bags to the women there.
"It's a wonderful facility," Williams said. "The benches and the rose bushes from the meditation garden at Hillsborough are there now, facing a beautiful inlet of water. It's nice that a piece of Hillsborough lives on."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]