Family and friends of some of Florida’s 97,000 prison inmates offered public testimony Thursday denouncing proposed visitation rules that could make it harder to see their loved ones regularly.
“Limiting visitation is not in the best interest of the citizens of Florida and the communities in which they live,” Michael McBride, the father of an inmate, told officials including assistant deputy secretary for institutions Richard Comerford.
“Constantly, I feel as though I am being punished,” said Vicky Pearl, whose son is in the Florida State Prison. “The pain you are causing is more than any pain my son ever caused, and he is serving 30 years in prison.”
Some 48 people spoke during roughly three hours. Several expressed fear of retaliation against their loved ones or themselves for speaking out. Many pointed to visitation’s value in rehabilitating lawbreakers and keeping the peace behind bars. Others said underpaid, inexperienced corrections officers were more responsible than family members for introducing contraband.
“Let me be a mother to my son,” Jody Chambers Wilson demanded, inspiring applause and many in the audience to rise in ovation. Comerford chastened the crowd, saying, “We will not tolerate outbursts.”
The rules (find them here) would establish three types of visitation. Standard visitation would vary little from the system in place now: Visits would be allowed for six hours every Saturday and Sunday and on state holidays.
Modified visitation would allow visits only every other weekend and on holidays; and emergency or temporary visitation would entail suspension or limitation of visiting privileges in case of disturbances including riots, strikes, or uprisings, or natural disaster or epidemic.
The department already holds the authority to impose those emergency limits — as it did on Memorial Day because of potential flooding in North Florida.
Driving the initiative are concerns that the department lacks enough staff to ensure the safety of visitors and prisoners and to intercept contraband.
“We do have some very high vacancy rates at some of our institutions — particularly in the North Florida region,” said Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the department. “We want to have an appropriate inmate-to-officer ratio while we’re monitoring visitation.”
Contraband has been increasing throughout the system, she said. “That is one of the things that could trigger the more modified visitation. By canceling visitation on a weekend, it allows for additional searches of the compound. It allows for more staffing and do more efficient searches.”
Secretary Julie Jones and her top aides will review the testimony and other public comments and decide whether to make changes or approve the rules. The department will post updates on its website.
The initiative led family members, former inmates, and their supporters to create the Campaign for Prison Reform, according to Lakey Love, one of the organizers. The group planned to gather outside the Governor’s Mansion later in the day to protest the proposed rules and cuts to mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, plus elimination of offender re-entry and work-release programs, to make up a $79 million deficit.
Love credited the outcry with forcing officials to scale back harsh curtailment of visitation. State law, she said, requires the department to encourage visits by family members. Yet critics fear it would be too easy for officials to make modified visitation the system’s default setting.
“We will challenge them everywhere they go. And if this is the rule they want to stick with, we’ll challenge them on the language,” Love said during a break in testimony.
Although she acknowledged the staffing problem, Love said: “If they have a money problem, they should try to decarcerate,” releasing elderly or ailing inmates who are unlikely to re-offend.
“Cutting visitation is only going to increase numbers in the future, which is going to increase costs,” she added. “They’re cutting all the progressive programs that actually help.”
Glady concurred that testimony during an earlier public hearing led to changes in the wording, including the dropping of language imposing a two-hour minimum for visitation that many family members believed would be the maximum time allowed.
“That was never the intention but, because of the public testimony that was centered on those two hours, we wanted to make sure we clarified that,” she said.