BROOKSVILLE — Debbie Day fought back tears, her voice shaking, as she stood before the volunteers and corrections officials gathered Wednesday morning just outside Hernando Correctional Institution.
"God is here," the volunteer chaplain told a group of about 50 people. "We're going to see people healed, delivered and set free."
"That's right," a woman in the crowd murmured as others nodded in support.
Officially, the day's event was the grand opening of the prison as a faith- and character-based facility — the fourth such institution in Florida and the first to be housed at a women's prison.
It felt more like a church revival.
Volunteers in the audience clapped and shot their hands into the air. Some shouted "Amen!" and "Yes!" as Scripture was read. Many spoke of their faith and the importance of helping the prison's roughly 470 inmates. They prayed together.
"I want to see every one of those ladies healed and be all that God needs them to be," said Day, a volunteer for about a year. "Just know that this is the beginning of something way bigger than us, way bigger than us. We're going to see God show up."
Wednesday's ceremony marked the public transition of the institution, which opened in the early 1950s. The prison was redesignated in 1984 for medium- and minimum-custody male inmates. It became a women's prison in 1999. It officially was converted to a faith- and character-based facility Oct. 2.
All of the women at the facility must ask to be there. Last week, the prison moved 205 inmates out to make room for 226 new prisoners.
"They have to want to be here," said Tina Roberts, the warden at Hernando Correctional.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews, one of several dignitaries in attendance, said it was a proud day for the state.
"Today is a huge day for our department," Crews said. "It's a huge day for those ladies who are behind the fence. And it's a huge day for this community."
The program's goal is simple: reduce recidivism and disciplinary infractions.
The department is trying to give inmates a greater possibility of success once they're freed from the prison system by incorporating faith and character development into their lives, said Alex Taylor, Florida's chaplaincy services administrator.
"They make it a safer environment to work in for the staff and a safer environment to live in for the inmates," he said.
Pastor Charles Williams and his wife, Betty, have volunteered at the prison for three years through the Fresh Start Ministries of Tampa organization.
They say they're already noticing a change in how people think — the inmates' attitudes and how they deal with problems.
"There's a sense of freedom on the compound that wasn't here before it became faith-based," Betty Williams said.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.