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Woman credits faith-based Hillsborough prison for turning life around

Wendi Harris, 46, was a former inmate at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution, spending the last half of a five-year prison sentence there. “Sometimes,” she said, “I think going to prison was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Wendi Harris, 46, was a former inmate at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution, spending the last half of a five-year prison sentence there. “Sometimes,” she said, “I think going to prison was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”

TAMPA — A poised Wendi Harris welcomes guests into her Carrollwood home with a smile and fresh-baked cookies.

At 46, she is a newlywed. She teaches yoga, plays with her cats and shops for household items.

Then there's her past life as Wendi Hird, the crack addict and prostitute sentenced to five years in 2005 for resisting an officer with violence.

When a bus dropped off that Wendi at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution with almost three years left to serve, she didn't care if she lived or died.

It took counseling at Florida's only faith- and character-based women's prison to convince her she had worth. There, volunteers called her by name and helped her set goals.

So news that the prison would close because of budget cuts hit hard.

In a plan proposed by prison chief Edwin Buss, the state would close three prisons, two boot camps and a road prison by summer to save $30.8 million annually. It would let the state avoid a $14 million cost of upgrading the Hillsborough prison, which a corrections spokeswoman says is one of the most expensive to run.

On March 21, Harris traveled with other former inmates and volunteers to Tallahassee to make an impassioned plea to senators. Their efforts helped stall the consolidation plan.

"How can they close this place?" Harris asked. "Why can't there be more prisons like Hillsborough's, where you don't leave feeling like what's on the bottom of your shoe?"

•••

As a teenager, Harris used her parents' divorce as an excuse to smoke pot and get wasted. In her 20s, she moved to crack.

She lived to feed the habit. She stood on street corners, sold drugs and dealt in stolen property. For two decades, she shuffled in and out of county jail.

Then she put her hands on a police officer.

"I've since written those arresting officers an apology," she said.

Her five-year incarceration began at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, where foul-mouthed guards tossed her into line with the other felons.

"It's like a cattle call," Harris said. "You're processed like cattle. You're talked to like cattle."

While at Lowell and then Broward Correctional Institution near Fort Lauderdale, Harris withdrew to avoid vulgar threats and confrontations. She looked down when she brushed her teeth because she didn't want to see her face in the mirror.

Finally, she put her name on the list for the faith-based prison, certain she had nothing to lose.

•••

The sun wasn't up yet when guards woke her without warning and told her to pack a bag. Her stomach turned. When they loaded her onto the bus, she didn't know where it was going.

Then winding country roads led to a prison nestled between open land and strawberry fields.

"My heart soared," she said. "I had hopes for something better."

At Hillsborough, staff and volunteers waited at the gates to greet Harris and other inmates. Guards introduced themselves and looked Harris in the eye.

She lived in a barrack with 90 other women. They went to chapel and followed the rules. No swearing and no fighting.

"For the first time in a long time, I felt like a human being," Harris said. "I felt safe."

A list of self-betterment classes posted on the bulletin board intrigued Harris, but it took about six months for her hard shell to soften.

She enrolled in anger management classes and met volunteer Nancy Williams. They talked about faith and forgiveness. Williams, from Sun City Center, never asked for details about Harris' crimes. She accepted her without condition.

They became friends.

"I knew she'd had a challenging background but I saw through that," Williams said.

Soon, Harris enrolled in wellness classes such as line dancing and tennis. She began to take pride in her appearance. At a dress-for-success event, she modeled business attire.

Spiritually, she explored everything from Buddhism to Christianity. She thought about the future.

"Her life was changed and rearranged and I got to see that change in person," Williams said. "I saw her faith change. I saw her self-esteem change."

On Dec. 8, 2009, Harris was released from prison.

•••

Harris can't imagine the 289 women at the Hillsborough facility being thrown back into the prison system.

If the compound closes, inmates would go to faith-based dormitories at Lowell and in Brooksville. Harris thinks that's a terrible idea.

"Those dorms are just small havens in the midst of sharks," she said. "When the women leave and go into the rest of the facility, they'll forget everything they've learned and do what they have to do to survive."

Volunteers agree.

"These women are reformed but they aren't going to stay reformed if they are put someplace where they are treated like trash and not taught," said Janet Smith of Sun City Center.

Last week, volunteers and inmates filed suit against the state to prevent the closing. The suit cites a state law that requires male and female inmates to receive equal treatment. If the three faith-based men's correctional facilities remain open, the law is violated, said Tallahassee lawyer Dean LeBoeuf.

Harris is not one of the plaintiffs, but supports the effort.

•••

The days of Harris bumming cigarettes in the prison yard are over.

Now she works part time as a housekeeper, gardens and cooks dinner for her husband, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robert Harris. The two met at church and wed during a small ceremony at Riverfront Park in June 2010.

Wendi Harris keeps a fully stocked fruit bowl in her kitchen. She uses skin creams in an attempt to bring back the youth she lost too soon.

When she talks about life before Hillsborough, it's as if she's talking about a stranger.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or whitman@sptimes.com.

Woman credits faith-based Hillsborough prison for turning life around 04/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 12:34am]

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