JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Sweeping policy changes for Florida inmates have families preparing to march outside the state capital on Thursday to demand action by Gov. Rick Scott.
The controversial policy changes are a result of prison staffing shortages and contraband increases, according to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). For those reasons, they are changing visitation rules to help with security.
On Thursday, families across the state will meet in Tallahassee to protest the visitation changes, including three moms who shared their message with First Coast News.
"They convicted him, he got 15 years, he still has about five and a half years to go," said Leonie Cummins, whose son is in prison following a fatal drunk driving accident. She maintains that her son is innocent.
"My son is doing 25 years because he got into some trouble, he’s been in for seven years," said Angelia Reddick. She didn't want to elaborate on her son's crime, but said he was arrested at just 17 years old.
"He received a 30-year sentence, he’s been in prison now for about 19 years," said mother Judy Thompson. Her son is doing time for a robbery. She's now a parole representative as she fights for inmates' rights.
Once strangers, these three mothers are now connected in the biggest fight of their lives. They are all trying to prevent a policy change that would take time away from visiting their sons. Other families who share the same concerns have loved ones in prison for life. They're worried that a visitation change will hurt their family dynamic forever.
"Not everybody is guilty, our justice system stinks," Cummins said. "I love going to see my son, I look forward to it, he looks forward to just hugging me."
The FDC is changing visitation to every other weekend instead of every weekend. For working parents, like Reddick, they fear they may only see their children one weekend a month. The change will not affect visitation during state recognized holidays.
The FDC tells First Coast News "this measure will result in faster processing time for visitors, more appropriate staff to inmate ratios in visiting parks, improved access to vending services, and an overall enhanced experience for both visitors and inmates."
The policy change will go into effect on April 7. It coincides with an increase in video-visitation options for inmates' families, which the FDC says helps families who can’t make the trek to a prison.
They are adding video kiosks and selling secure tablets for FaceTime. Every 15 minutes of a video conversation would cost a family member $2.95.
Some prisons like Baker County have implemented video visitation only. Families worry that's what will eventually happen, but the FDC says that’s not their plan.
"I just feel like the family unit is going to fall apart," Cummins said.
The FDC said the changes will be in place until they can fix their staffing shortages and eliminate the increased flow of contraband into their prisons. They say the smuggling of cellphones, weapons and drugs is threatening security.
Thompson said curtailing visitation only punishes good inmates and their loved ones. They believe the decrease in physical visits from parents, spouses and children will negatively impact their mental health and lead to more violence within prison walls.
"It will only make things worse," Cummins said.
"The human touch is healing," Thompson said. "There will be more violence and more suicides, they're shooting themselves in the foot and I want to say this, I don't care whether it goes on camera or not, for another dollar.
Thompson said budget cuts and security breaches shouldn't lessen quality time with loved ones.
Florida State Representative David Richardson has released some research showing that most of the contraband coming into prisons is from staff.
The FDC has arrested some corrections officers for smuggling. They will look back at these visitation changes in 90 days to see if they made a difference.
INFORMATION FOR THURSDAY PROTEST:
- Meet at Regency Square Mall by the Police Substation, 9501 Arlington Expressway
- Departure at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, March 8
- Carpooling available, call 904-743-1867
- Meet at FDC, 501 S. Calhoun Street, Tallahassee, FL
- Protest planned for noon – 4 p.m. on March 8
- Petition for Gov. Scott, click here