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Prison is a first for young females

Department of Corrections converts the formerly all-male Hernando Correctional Institution into Florida's only facility entirely for women classified as "youthful offenders."

To the casual observer, the changes under way behind the light-blue walls of the Hernando Correctional Institution are hardly noticeable.

But there are clues that something is going on. A female prisoner drives a tractor on the prison grounds. Another woman dressed in a light-blue prison uniform mows grass. Soon residents will notice more and more all-female work crews mowing grass or picking up trash along county roads.

The eyes do not deceive _ the state-run prison next to the county jail has been converted by the Department of Corrections to a women's facility. The change ends more than 45 years during which the prison housed male inmates.

As of Thursday, 84 women had been moved into the prison, said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. About 350 female prisoners will be placed in the facility by the end of the year, leaving plenty of room for expansion.

The prison's 135 employees will remain, Rackleff said. Women make up about 20 percent of the staff. Though the state wants to raise that percentage as more women are moved to the prison, Rackleff said this will be done through attrition as opposed to employee transfers.

But aside from the gender of the inmates, little else has changed at the prison, Rackleff explained.

The security level of prisoners at the Hernando Correctional Institution, which once housed about 450 medium- and minimum-security male prisoners, will remain the same.

The facility will now house young medium- and minimum-security female prisoners, so-called "youthful offenders."

Prisoners can be classified youthful offenders by the courts if their crimes were committed before they were 21, according to Deparment of Corrections guidelines.

And the department can classify inmates as youthful offenders if they are 24 or younger, with sentences of 10 years or less.

Rackleff said the conversion of the Hernando County facility creates the state's first prison specifically for female youthful offenders. In the past, these prisoners were simply incorporated into the general prison population, she said.

Changing demographics within the state prison system necessitated the change, said Bill Bales, the Department of Corrections research and data analysis bureau chief. Women, especially young women, are an expanding part of the prison population.

The number of women in state prisons increased about 5.6 percent between June 30, 1997, and June 30 of this year. During the same period, the number of female youthful offenders went up about 45 percent, Bales said.

And about 80 percent of the more than 3,600 women in the state prison system are from the southern half of the state, with Orlando being the rough dividing line, Rackleff said.

The state had only three female prisons before the Hernando Correctional Institution's conversion. Two of them were in the northern part of the state, in Jefferson and Marion counties, Rackleff said. The third is in Broward County.

In converting the Brooksville prison, the state hopes to put the female prisoners closer to their families, especially their children, Rackleff said. The women's prison in Jefferson County will be converted to a men's facility.

The substance abuse treatment center that was a separate part of the Hernando Correctional Institution also will be converted to a women's program.

Billed as an innovative way to battle drug-related crime when it was built in the early 1990s, the center was the first of its kind in the state. A similar facility was opened about the same time in Gainesville, and state officials said at the time such facilities would eventually be opened across the state.

According to the Department of Corrections' annual reports, however, the number of slots for both men and women in the state's prison substance abuse programs has steadily declined _ about 8 percent from the 1995-96 fiscal year to the 1997-98 year. During that time, the total prison population, excluding inmates on death row, increased about 3 percent. The number of prisons where substance abuse programs are offered also has dropped, from 46 in 1995-96 to 40 in 1997-98.

The 210 male prisoners who were at the Hernando Correctional Institution's drug treatment center were sent to similar programs in Alachua, Dixie and Marion counties, Rackleff said. The remaining male prisoners were also sent to other institutions.

About the same number of female prisoners eventually will attend the drug treatment center. Participants in the center's nine- to 12-month programs are separated from other prisoners. They go to meetings of substance abuse groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and participate in vocational programs, Rackleff said.

Though not every prisoner at the Hernando Correctional Institution will be in the drug treatment center, Rackleff said the age of the women in the facility means the state will focus mainly on rehabilitation.

The inmates' lives will be slightly more supervised than at other state prisons, she explained. Prisoners will have less idle time and spend more time participating in vocational programs such as the facility's wood shop. "Their lives are going to be very, very regimented," Rackleff said. "They'll march to class and march to work. It will be a longer day in which they are supervised. We're trying to save these youngsters."