BROOKSVILLE - Thanks to a faith- and character-based program for inmates, Hernando County volunteers are helping restore hope in a place where there is often little.
Starting last week, the 467-bed, female Hernando Correctional Institution now only houses inmates enrolled in a Florida Department of Corrections program that aims to curb recidivism rates and disciplinary infractions.
The voluntary, 12-36 month program called, "Faith- and Character-Based Correctional Initiative," seeks to foster personal growth and character development by offering academic, vocational, betterment, chaplaincy, social re-entry, and substance abuse prevention programs, according to the FDOC.
The program is both of a religious and a secular variety and comprised of community volunteers who serve as mentors and teachers to inmates.
Of the 80 or so people who attended the program's groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, the vast majority of them were volunteers.
Among them was Debbie Day, a full-time chaplain at the prison, who was one of several who spoke at the event.
"People say, 'Aren't you tired?'?" she said. "And no, I'm not. This is something way bigger than us."
So far the program is offered in 17 detention facilities across the state, according to the FDOC, and is available to up to 6,500 male and female inmates at all custody levels.
Deputy Secretary Tim Cannon said that, in his long career with the FDOC, the program is one example of what the department is doing right.
"I walked in to this agency and saw things I was not proud of," Cannon said, noting limited volunteer access and transparency with media. "People have asked me in my 25 years, many times, 'What do you all do in Department of Corrections that corrects people's behavior?' And I'd have to drop my head, embarrassed."
"But I'm proud today," he added.
FDOC Secretary Michael Crews said volunteers have helped the department in two aspects in particular: advancing inmates' education and providing substance abuse counseling.
About 70 percent of inmates have no formal education, and about 75 percent have some type of substance abuse disorder, he said.
"It's the No. 1 contributing factor to reintegration to society, is education," Crews said. "Between 50 and 60 percent never get any substance abuse treatment when they're behind the fence. That's where the community involvement comes in."
Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who also attended the groundbreaking, said his office and the FDOC have had a great partnership, particularly with the Hernando Correctional Institute being located across the street from the Hernando County Detention Center on Spring Hill Drive.
"We work very well here," he said. "This is a good group of people."
Crews said there are still challenges facing the department. As Florida's largest state agency, with more than 25,000 members, and 246,000 inmates incarcerated or on supervised release, finances are among them. But community support and volunteers have been a key component in addressing those challenges, he said.
"Without the people sitting here today, I'd hate to see where we would be from a program standpoint," he said.