John Gray, author of best seller ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, identified fundamental psychological differences between the male and female genders. Likewise, there are notable distinctions between the culture at the Florida Women’s Reception Center (FWRC) and its male counterparts. FWRC, located in Ocala, Florida, sits within walking distance of its sister facilities – Lowell C.I. and Lowell Annex. Add Hernando and Gadsden to the mix and you have all of Florida’s female prisons in a nutshell.
The Women’s Reception Center houses about 1,000 inmates with custody levels ranging from close to community. Ms. Lori Sink, Warden. Stepping behind the walls at FWRC is a mind altering experience. Let’s take the tour. The first thing you notice when you step on the yard is a preponderance of mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and daughters, they’re all here. This defies the familial perception that women don’t belong in prison, after all, they’re the caregivers, the ones who kiss away the hurt and work from dawn til setting sun. But sadly, some women cross the line and their penalty may run deeper as they experience the maternal pain of leaving their children behind.
On this particular balmy August evening, many of the ladies were out on the yard, some reading quietly, some just shooting the breeze, the sound of laughter was prevalent – some were more disposed to exercise while others ran laps. Toward the middle of the green, a woman held a pose she learned from their part-time Yoga instructor. Smiles were real and so were the spontaneous greetings the women offered the two Assistant Wardens, Ms. Suzanne McRee and Mr. Kevin Jordan, who always responded with gentle dignity and respect.
H Dorm, the faith based dorm better known as JOY Dorm (Journey Of Years), has a capacity of 76 beds which are positioned side by side in horizontal rows. America’s Got Talent is not viewed there, as a matter of fact, there is no TV at all. These ladies don’t rock to Beyonce’s lyrics, they have no radios – and that’s just the way they want it! Sgt. William Nicholls leads this select group and encourages them to read fervently. He guides them toward the acquisition of spiritual wisdom and insight by challenging them daily with sessions of ‘Wisdom Search’ that cognitively positions them beyond the barbed wire fences to their very own personal places of freedom.
JOY consists of three levels which will be explained as if they were stages of a secular education. Those on entry level are the freshman, brand new to the program with lots to digest. The sophomore/junior level is one of growth and learning while the senior and graduate level propels one into an assigned missionary field, ripe with incoming fresh recruits. Ladies in the Advanced Program share their knowledge and talents with those in other dorms while planting spiritual seeds of hope, joy and love.
During Ms. Lolita Barthel’s interview with Ms. Laura Mathai, of the Advanced Program, Ms. Mathai shared a life-altering change she witnessed during her Missionary trip to F Dorm. There she met Krystal, a self-confessed white supremacist. But because Ms. Mathai had learned patience and persistence and how to forgive, she was able to extend an arm of love to Krystal whose life’s walk changed forever on July 21, 2014. What’s love got to do with it? EVERYTHING!
These ladies also author and publish their very own newsletter, ‘The Good News of JOY’. The August issue contains personal testimonies like the answered prayer of Ms. Eumeka Mathis who prayed that a group of Christians embrace her young son during her absence. Ms. Lavender Perkins submits the prayer requests and the answers to those prayers as the assurance that God is listening. A poem of encouragement by Ms. Barbara Gronroos shares the hope of a bright future and renders a warning to Satan that she serves a jealous King that doesn’t share. Ms. Andrea Jackson renders an encouraging column on spiritual insights. But unlike those men from Mars, women sometimes have anti-social, hormonally-induced mood swings which vilify them as Venus fly traps with mouths wide open, ready to snap. JOY women admit they have issues, like everybody else, but they have found ways to work out their differences among themselves.
Leaving JOY dorm, the next stop is the spacious Library at the end of the yard which contains a section for law clerks that is equipped with legal volumes and computers. Visible from the window are the beginnings of a hydroponic garden, slated to be in full bloom within the next few months. This sends a strong message from the admin team that they care about the health and well-being of these ladies and are set on providing nourishing, quality foods necessary for strong bodies and sharp minds.
Why is FWRC so different from the rest? Could it be that the inherent female predisposition to be ‘fixers’ sustains this aura rarely seen in male facilities? Florida’s prisons must incorporate this culture that is rooted in the Divine principle to treat others as they would like to be treated. Then would the 36,000 returning citizens, that are released from the system annually, have the best shot at a successful re-entry. KUDOS to FWRC for wisely using these critical years of the offender’s prison journey to pull out any stops that would otherwise prevent these women from stepping out of the shadows of a guilty past and soaring to their highest potential.