A South Carolina sharecropper's daughter who began her corrections career in Florida as an entry level probation officer 25 years ago is leading a new program to help inmates leaving the state's massive prison system avoid returning to a life behind bars.
Hieteenthia "Tina" Hayes said the system must provide more educational and vocational assistance to inmates from the first day they enter prison.
"It's high time we stop doing things the way we used to do it," Hayes said. "We cannot continue to lock them up and throw away the key."
In announcing Hayes' appointment last week to run the new program, prisons chief Jim McDonough said 36,000 inmates will be leaving the system in 12 months and that a third of those will likely return within three years. For some, having prison on their record deters employers, but many also do not have enough education to land jobs.
McDonough would like to reduce the recidivism rate to one in five by 2012, starting with more educational opportunities and drug treatment for inmates.
McDonough said Hayes has the "perfect combination of professional and personal character for the mission.
"She knows that what American offers is opportunity, but the true test is to seize it and apply yourself," McDonough said. "That, in a nutshell, is what re-entry is all about."
One of 14 children who grew up near Manning, S.C., in a three bedroom farmhouse without running water, Hayes has always known hard work -- picking tobacco and cotton as a young girl.
And while her parents, James and Lucy Hayes, had only a grade school education, they stressed the importance of education and doing the right thing. All but one of the children went on to get a college education.
Those values give her confidence she can exceed McDonough's goal.
"Someday it's just when you say hello to somebody," said Hayes, 49. "I've always been one to believe there's a good side to everybody."
Finding the dollars to pay for increasing programs is a major challenge, although federal grants and working with faith-based organizations will help the effort.
"This is everybody's problem," said Hayes, who has earned undergraduate and a master's degree in management and a doctorate in religion in her off-duty hours during her time with the Department of Corrections.
"We have tons of volunteers willing to help," she said. Sometimes, all a person leaving prison needs to get started is assistance in getting a driver's license, an ID card and a place to stay, she added.
But about 65 percent of the inmate population needs substance abuse treatment and less than one in five receive it. More that half of the institutions do not have educational or vocational programs.
To provide more assistance, DOC has already begun working with the state's Labor Department, the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Florida Home Builders Association and the state's Habitat for Humanity program, as well as its own public-private partnership known as PRIDE.
"It's the right thing to do for the right reasons," Hayes said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could work ourselves out of a job?"
BY BRENT KALLESTAD THE ASSOCIATED PRESS