BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — Female inmates are getting a second chance to rebuild their lives at a prison in Brooksville.
It's all part of an innovative Faith and Character program through the Florida Department of Corrections and the Hernando Correctional Institution, led by Warden Tamera Poynter.
You would think faith would be hard to find in the middle of a women's prison in Hernando County, but the women serving anywhere from just 18 months to a full life sentence say differently.
"Having faith in a higher power is definitely key to changing your life," said Siobhan, one of the women serving time at the Hernando Correctional Institution.
A team of volunteers service not only a full range of religions and denominations in their chapel, but volunteers also assist in helping inmates study for their GED and gain educational certificates.
You'll also find inmates studying to work on construction sites through realistic video simulations. It involves around 1,200 hours of study through a grant-funded program and Caterpillar, learning to drive dump trucks, bulldozers, and other large-scale pieces of equipment.
Those who go through the program and qualify will be able to apply for in-demand construction jobs upon release. Some of those positions pay as high as $30 per hour.
Teresa Robinson, an inmate at the Hernando Correctional Institution, had a short stay in another facility. She struggled to adjust.
"People tell you that you have to adapt sort of like a prison mentality," she said. "Well, that's hard for me to do."
But things changed for the better when she transferred into the Brooksville facility.
As each inmate has a role in the community, Robinson now does clerical work at the prison. She is also working toward her degree in theology.
"I always keep a saying," Robinson said. "I refuse to be locked up, while I'm locked up."
All of this is a point of pride for Warden Poynter.
"They come here to improve themself, for themself, for their family, and for society," she said.
Poynter believes in the women here and sees the potential.
"We have folks that have made mistakes in their lives," she said. "They have taken ownership of that, and they want to change it."
Now the warden is hoping to expand the services and educational opportunities for inmates at Hernando Correctional Institution.
She's hoping to add more modular classrooms in an open part of the facility's grounds.
"If you build it, they will come," Poynter said. "We just need to build it because they're here and they want it.
Of the three women who spoke one-on-one with reporters, Melissa De La Cruz has been at Hernando Correctional Institution the longest.
"It's made me stronger," she said. "Especially the responsibilities that Hernando has given me to take on while I'm here."
She also offers insight into what support, education and resources can do for women in her situation.
"This program basically took a lot of my time back," De La Cruz said. "The judge reduced my sentence by 10 years when I went to the court with 64 certificates."
She said programs like these are the way to prevent those convicted of crimes from reoffending and helping them start new, productive lives.