Public Outcry Forces Florida DOC to Back Down on Limits to In-Person Visitation
by David M. Reutter
Following an onslaught of pressure from the public and action by the Florida legislature’s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (JAPC), the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) was forced to withdraw a rule proposal to reduce in-person visitation time by half.
At an initial April 3, 2018 public hearing on the proposal, more than 100 people showed up to speak against the rule change. Prison officials had announced the hearing just a week earlier by filing a notice in the Florida Administrative Register.
“I really don’t want my visits or anyone’s visits to be taken,” said 11-year-old Cody Calhoun, who told prison officials he would be “devastated” if the change went into effect.
“Why would you even take [visits] away?” he asked. “I mean, they’re already having a bad enough time in prison. Why would you make it worse? Please. I need to see my dad on the weekends.... I love playing with him and it brings me closer to him.”
The FDOC, however, refused to back down.
“No one would argue that visitation isn’t valuable, that the family connections aren’t important, that having those connections contributes to the reduction of recidivism,” said FDOC spokeswoman Michelle Glady. “In-person visitation is very important, but we have to balance the security of the institution and that’s why the rule outlines when we would have to go to a more modified schedule.”
The Florida Campaign for Prison Reform, Florida Cares, the Forgotten Majority and the Florida Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls spearheaded the push to stop the proposed visitation changes.
“Defeating the policy that would cut back on in-person visits is a huge victory over the war against apathy toward those who are incarcerated,” stated Forgotten Majority president Judy Thompson.
The FDOC cited staffing shortages and contraband as reasons for wanting to reduce in-person visitation at state prisons.
Under longstanding rules, Florida prisoners could receive visits every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on holidays. In February 2018, the FDOC announced it planned to reduce visitation to every other weekend based on the ending digits in a prisoner’s identification number: Odd numbers would be one week and even numbers the next. Further, visitation time would be limited to as little as two hours a day.
“In spite of our diligent efforts, we are experiencing a vast increase in the amount of contraband being introduced into correctional facilities statewide, which is exacerbated by current staff shortages,” prison officials said when announcing the proposed changes. “These hindrances make it difficult to maintain the positive environment required and expected in our visitation parks.”
To gain entry to FDOC facilities, visitors must submit to a physical pat-down and search of their belongings, as well as walk through a metal detector. The FDOC’s own data found that only around 2.5 percent of contraband introduced into state prisons was attributable to visitors.
State Rep. David Richardson, who has examined corruption in Florida prisons for several years, said the FDOC should focus more on its employees if it wants to address problems with contraband smuggling.
“Based on my experience, most of the contraband is walking in the front door by staff, not by visitors coming on weekends,” he noted.
One former prisoner agreed when speaking at a public hearing on the FDOC’s proposed rule change. “Your officers are bringing in the contraband because they are overworked. Your officers are bringing in the heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine,” said Kyle Williford, who was released from a Florida prison in March 2018.
The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, sent letters to its incarcerated Florida supporters prior to the hearing, urging them to submit comments on the proposed rule change. HRDC filed detailed comments against the rule on April 13, 2018, and renewed its objections in a May 30, 2018 letter.
About the same time that the FDOC moved to cut in-person visitation, it announced it would start providing fee-based video calls through JPay kiosks in prison dormitories.
“HRDC maintains that video calls should only be provided in addition to in-person visitation, affordable phone calls and reliable postal mail service,” HRDC wrote in its May letter opposing the proposed visitation rule. “Video calls are not, and should not be, a replacement for any of those means of communication between prisoners and their families, and in-person visits should be prioritized and expanded, not restricted.”
HRDC also noted that “While JPay has stated it will not be charging the FDOC to install kiosks for video calls, it will be charging prisoners $2.95 for 15‐minute sessions. This cost is borne on the backs of prisoners’ families, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the state.”
The JAPC questioned how the FDOC’s proposed visitation rule aligned with section 944.8031, Florida Statutes, which requires the department to identify “capital improvements, staffing, and programmatic needs necessary to improve the quality and frequency of family visits and the visitation program and services.” The law also notes that “maintaining an inmate’s family and community relationships through enhancing visitor services and programs and increasing the frequency and quality of the visits is an underutilized correctional resource that can improve an inmate’s behavior in the correctional facility and, upon an inmate’s release from a correctional facility, will help to reduce recidivism.”
The FDOC responded in May 2018 by changing its rule proposal and scheduling another public hearing. The new proposal would have created a schedule for standard, modified and emergency/temporary visitation. The standard option would keep the existing visit schedule and the modified option was the alternating weekend schedule, while the emergency/temporary option included the “limitation or suspension of visitation privileges.”
The FDOC’s central office would make the determination as to which schedule was used at each prison, at its discretion – indicating the changes were simply a legal end-run to achieve the same outcome, since prison officials could simply decide to implement the modified visitation schedule at all state prisons.
“In my history with the [FDOC], 23 years’ worth, it does not do anything except the minimum,” said Jewy Tryon, who spoke at one of the public hearings on the rule change. Tryon’s husband is incarcerated at a Florida state prison, and she submitted a petition that received over 9,000 signatures in opposition to the FDOC’s visitation changes.
When prison officials failed to formally adopt the proposed rule by July 15, 2018, within a 90-day statutory deadline, the JAPC ordered them to withdraw the rule. The organizations that opposed the rule change declared victory, stating in a post on the Florida Campaign for Prison Reform’s website: “As a collective we believe that the proposed reduction in visitation put forward by Florida Department of Corrections ... was both inhumane and unnecessary. We stand with the Florida Legislature in recognizing that visitation of incarcerated individuals by family and loved ones reduces recidivism and brings transparency to what is happening to Florida’s 98,000 incarcerated individuals behind the walls.”
The FDOC, however, has indicated it will try again with another proposed rule change. “Public testimony did not delay the rule’s implementation,” it said in a statement. “We welcome further comments as we move forward with implementing the new draft.”
Sources: Tallahassee Democrat, Miami Herald, www.campaignforprisonreform.com, www.orlandoweekly.com, News Service of Florida, www.wuft.org, www.wjhg.com