A banner hangs in the gymnasium at Hillsborough Correctional Institution, the words Sun City Your Love Empowers Us written on it in magic marker.
Notes from inmates fill in the white space.
Thank you for all your support. You are a blessing. We'd already be gone without you.
In March, news came from the Florida Department of Corrections that the state's only faith-based women's prison would close as a result of budget cuts. The facility, which formerly held men, was converted to house 360 women in 2004. Even at capacity, prison officials said, the institution was cost prohibitive.
Then a group of retirees who volunteer at Hillsborough took a drive to Tallahassee.
A week after the announcement, Sharon Whiddon, Nancy Williams, Janet Smith and Dee Rennert stood before a Senate committee, asking it to reconsider. Hillsborough's re-offending rate is 6.7 percent compared to 33 percent for the state system, they said. Inmates receive counseling, spiritual training and take classes to help them re-enter society.
The argument, along with testimony from former inmates, persuaded officials to delay action.
In May, the state decided Hillsborough would remain open for at least another year. In June, it was zoned for more inmates to help balance costs.
"People in Tallahassee thought we knew what we were doing, but we didn't," Whiddon said. "We were just four grandmas who knew it wasn't right for this place to close. I call it God's prison."
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Nestled between acres of open land and strawberry fields off County Road 672, Hillsborough Correctional Institution rehabilitates women who are ready to make a change. Inmates have to apply to get in; many wait years.
Inside, guards are unarmed. Leafy shade trees line the walkways. There is an interfaith chapel and an education building, a meditation garden and a beauty shop. Inmates sweeping the grounds smile and say hello to volunteers.
More than 200 women, the majority from Sun City Center, give their time at Hillsborough and ask nothing in return. They offer counsel, give career advice, teach yoga and lead art classes.
If a toilet breaks or a roof leaks, volunteers notify the staff and pester them until it gets fixed.
"These women make this place what it is," said Shelia York, who is serving 40 years for armed robbery and second-degree murder. "They lift you up here."
Most of the volunteers came to Hillsborough in search of purpose. Retired from careers up North as teachers, homemakers and businesswomen, they felt the need to fill their days with something more than lounging in the Florida sun.
Nancy Williams previously volunteered at a jail in her home state of Maryland, so she felt comfortable walking into the prison. Whiddon, 66, is a retired psychiatric nurse. She wanted to use her training to help criminals overcome their pasts.
"For some of these women, this is the first time in their lives they've had someone they can trust," Whiddon said.
When word of the closing spread, it was volunteers who encouraged prisoners to pray rather than worry. Every afternoon, inmates gathered by the softball field to bow their heads.
Virginia Kelly, who has a little less than five years left on a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder, said she never doubted. When she was transferred to Hillsborough from the Marion County-based Lowell Correction Institution in 2009, it was volunteers who helped her forgive herself. She knew they wouldn't let the prison close.
"When I heard they were going to Tallahassee, I thought, we ain't going nowhere," she said. "This is God's plan, and you don't mess with God's plan."
Even after returning from Tallahassee, the volunteers continued to speak on behalf of the inmates. They sought media attention, staged letter writing campaigns and filed a lawsuit that fizzled when the DOC confirmed that the prison would remain open.
Knowing they played a part in keeping Hillsborough open makes the volunteers feel good, but most say it was in God's hands. The women believe the prison changes lives. Now that the fight to save it is over, they plan to focus on other things.
Inmates need employable skills once they walk free. New programs, such as a sewing group, will prepare them for life on the outside. One of the prison dorms needs a new roof. The volunteers have begun to lobby.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or email@example.com.