Liberty Hill woman helps prisoners regain dignity on the outside
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Linda Hrncir needs pants.
Not for herself, but for the women imprisoned at the Halbert Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility in Burnet — where for 13 years, Hrncir has provided them with respectable outfits on their release.
Many there have spent years behind bars, and without Hrncir’s program, would walk out the barbed wire in nothing more than their standard-issued prison scrubs. They need an outfit they can go to job interviews with, she explained, or for attending church, or simply “to look in the mirror and not see a prisoner.”
She and the four other volunteers at the Lost Closet, as the non-profit is called, receive a request order from the prison once a month for pants, blouses, shoes and more, in various sizes. They collect the clothes from individual and retail donations, and sometimes, when there’s a particular deficit, the Wednesday sales at the Salvation Army.
They often need pants in particular, Hrncir explained, because “most women will buy one pair of pants for every four or five blouses, and that ends up showing in the kind of clothes we see donated.”
The women come from all over Texas to serve time for drug-related offenses. The facility in Burnet specifically is a rehabilitation unit.
Letters from the prisoners, which Hrncir used to receive before the prison began compiling the monthly request order, consistently mention missing families, and hopes for a new future.
“Although I am in a new state of awareness on where I am headed with the remains of my life, the non-existence of my beloved family has shown me otherwise,” reads one. “I’m not a high maintenance lady.”
Another, “I’m leaving in January and my family can’t help me.”
One letter marked “urgent” read, “Can you please send me anything to wear before I leave this place? It’s an emergency because I only have 11 days left. I have nothing to wear.”
Hrncir said she receives around 30 letters a month, though she once received close to 100. They would be accompanied with a form the prisoners would complete to specify whether they wanted a blazer or sweater, jeans or slacks, and so on.
Some, however, had no such form or request. They only wanted to take the time to express their gratitude.
“You truly are a blessing to myself and the other ladies. You’ve been so ready to help. In time, I hope to help others also.”
The Lost Closet also once received a letter from the Regional Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which accompanied a plaque for the Texas Governor’s Criminal Justice Religious Service Volunteer Award in 2005.
The program, Gilbert Campuzano wrote, has had a “positive impact on offenders’ perception of self and self-esteem.”
“Many times, our perception of how others see us influences our behavior as much or more than our own perceptions of ourselves,” he continued.
The letter still hangs on the wall of the Lost Closet, which is actually an old bunkhouse Hrncir leases behind her home in Liberty Hill. They moved here over a year ago, after operating for years out of a building in Leander donated by Hrncir’s church.
Though it is partially dilapidated, volunteers have painted the floors and walls inside. They are waiting to fix the roof, Hrncir said, until they buy the building.
“You can only do so much when you have no budget,” she said.
The Lost Closet runs entirely on donations, and she and the other volunteers are not paid. All have day jobs, and Hrncir works as a hairdresser.
The clothes are arranged neatly in racks, shelves and bins, much like a retail thrift store. Hrncir said that she would like to eventually open the space as a retail store for donated clothes, which would fund the prison program.
“I used to sift through it all to count them out for an order, but then I got smart,” she said.
Now a row of bins organizes them by size, which Hrncir can quickly pull enough from each to fulfill a monthly prison order.
On the day of the order, she calls the prison to let them know she’s coming that day.
“They usually ask me to come in at lunchtime, or a little afterwards,” she said.
She puts the clothes, sometimes up to 300 garments, in trash bags so officials at the prison can easily search them — though Hrncir and her volunteers check every pocket themselves. Nothing can be found within the clothes that prisoners could use to hurt themselves or others.
“Say there’s nail clippers in there. The [metal] detectors would go off, and that would reflect on us,” she added.
With the clothes loaded up in her 2002 Avalanche, she drives to the prison, where she is let in through the back. An official, the same who is responsible for outfitting the women with their scrubs, takes the bags onto her dolley and brings them inside.
One time, Hrncir recalls, some jeans she brought had no buttons or zippers on them.
“She [the prison official] said, ‘Don’t worry, Linda, we’ll take care of it.’”
The official then had the jeans repaired and distributed them to women on their release.
The same week, Hrncir visits again, this time for the ministry that she also runs for the prison program. The two are deeply related, as Hrncir described the Lost Closet as God’s calling in her life.
She was originally inspired in 2000 to begin volunteering for the prison in Burnet by a Bible verse, “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 23:36) And then later to begin her clothing program by another, “Awake, loose the bonds: shake yourself from the dust and clothe yourself with beautiful garments for you have been redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52:1-3)
Hrncir said, “The guys I was dating would say to me, ‘You go to prison? Aren’t you scared?’ I hear remarks like that all the time, and it’d make me mad. I’m not scared. They’re in prison, what are they going to do to me?”
In the 17 years that she has ministered for the prison, Hrncir has never transitioned to serving a non-prison population, though some of her volunteers have in the past.
About a quarter to a third of the roughly 650 women incarcerated in Burnet attend her monthly services, Hrncir estimated.
Until very recently, Hrncir did not mention the Lost Closet program to the prisoners when she visited in her religious role. And still, most prisoners know Hrncir only as a minister there.