Saturday, February 21, 2009

Butler County woman has volunteered her time to help Florida prisoners for 10 years

Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Doug Oster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With late morning light streaming into her home office, Bea Hickey held a beautiful painting of the Florida sunset tightly to her chest.

It was painted by one of the prison inmates she acted as advocate for over the past decade.

"He's very special," she says of imprisoned artist Todd Anderson, who is serving time in Florida's Tomoka Correctional Institution, just west of Daytona Beach.

Mrs. Hickey, 71, has been corresponding with inmates from Florida's prisons since 1999 and said she has seen changes in Mr. Anderson's demeanor since she's worked with the prison system on his behalf.

"He was a drug addict and a cocky kid," when she first heard from him, she said.

Sitting in her living room in Center, she was surrounded by letters and yellow Post-it notes filled with the phone numbers of mothers, fathers and girlfriends of inmates.

Aunt Bea, as she's known to the inmates and their families, began her work 10 years ago after her son was incarcerated in Florida for breaking into houses to fuel his drug habit.

She found out that he was able to buy drugs in prison and discovered he was being abused by guards there, too. When she reported this to officials at the institution, the abuse got worse and her son was labeled a snitch.

That's when she wrote to 16 random inmates at the facility asking them, "What's going on in your prison?" The answers made her form The Florida Lolits, Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes.

They met with the state's head of the department of corrections and were greeted with open arms. "I never wanted another family member to go through what I went through, and I didn't want the inmates to have go through what my son went through. There shouldn't be abuse in prison; they need rehabilitation." Mrs. Hickey's son has since been released from prison.

The group deals with a host of issues from prisons in Florida, the state where Mrs. Hickey lived until 2005, when she moved to Center to be close to family. A big part of their mission also deals with getting prisoners back on track after leaving an institution.

When she receives a letter from a prisoner, Mrs. Hickey investigates the complaint or issue, and if it warrants action, she begins at the institution itself. Sometimes her inquiries lead her to Florida's secretary of the department of corrections, Walter A. McNeil.

In one case, a father couldn't visit his son due to his own incarceration for six months 35 years earlier. In another, Mrs. Hickey is still fighting for the release of an inmate who has only a short time to live because of cancer. Sometimes the issue is as simple as getting a message to an inmate's mother.

She also gets letters that don't merit action, and after a decade, she said she has a pretty good feel for an inmate trying to scam her.

On this day, she was looking through her e-mail and had received something from Mr. McNeil that morning, something Mrs. Hickey said happens often.

With more than 99,000 inmates to deal with, Mr. McNeil said it helps that she does the legwork [on complaints] and won't send frivolous ones his way.

In a phone interview from his office, Mr. McNeil talked about the importance of what Mrs. Hickey is doing.

"She does her homework, and when she feels something that she's vetted through warrants our looking into, she'll bring it to my attention.

"There have been a few issues that she's brought to our attention that I was really glad she did. It's worth the time and the effort that she puts into keeping us involved and being an advocate; I totally condone what she's doing and hope she keeps it up."

Often it's family shame that leaves these inmates with no one on the outside to help them, Mrs. Hickey said, and one of her goals is to reunite those families.

She has some startling statistics.

She said the United States has roughly 1.6 million prison inmates.

"One out of every 100 people has either been to prison, is going to prison or knows someone in prison," she says.

Mrs. Hickey adds that 80 percent of people in prison are there because of drugs. "People have to understand that this is a disease just like cancer; it's something that needs to be treated and it's not being treated inside and it's mostly the officers that are bringing in the drugs," she said.

After Mrs. Hickey receives a letter from an inmate, she stays in touch with him or her, sending letters to 75 of them on a weekly basis and to a total of 100 overall. She also is in contact with many family members.

She works full time for the federal government, but after returning home she goes to work until late into the night and all weekend long for her inmates.

Her dining room table is covered in letters and envelopes, and her office is filled with more of the same, along with photos of the prisoners she corresponds with.

Each letter she sends is unique; some include crossword puzzles, jokes or pictures that she takes from around the yard showing snow scenes. "I try to share the beauty of the things that I see," she said.

John Wesley Stone was one of the first 16 inmates to receive a letter from Mrs. Hickey while he was serving 23 months for DUI. He was in the same prison as her son.

At first he wondered who Bea was, even thinking she might really be his aunt. He hit rock bottom in prison after learning his business went under while he was doing his time, so he decided to write back to Bea.

"We've been best friends ever since," he said from his Ocala, Fla., home. "She's a real sweetheart; I call her my Aunt Bea."

When asked what it was like to get a letter back from Mrs. Hickey, he said, "It was heaven, like ecstasy." Then his voice cracked and he added, "It was somebody from the outside that cared."

Mrs. Hickey has started working locally with Ben Vincent to get a good re-entry program going for inmates here when they are released and has started to make calls to Pennsylvania prisons on the behalf of some friends.

"They are like my Opies and I'm their Aunt Bea," she says of the inmates, referring to characters in the old "Andy Griffith" TV show.

"I just want to make a difference, I want to help people, I want them to know that they are not alone both inside and outside."

Doug Oster can be reached at or 724-772-9177.
First published on February 19, 2009 at 12:00 am

1 comment:

Laurice said...

Luv ya, Bea! Know you've made this your life's work. Glad to see you're getting the recognition you deserve!
God Bless You.