33ºF

Critics blast proposed prison visitation changes

photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Proposed changes to visitation at Florida prisons are drawing pushback from families, friends and supporters of the state’s 100,000 inmates.

Under a current rule, visitation is allowed every weekend as well as on state holidays. But the Florida Department of Corrections is moving ahead with a rule change that could cut visitation in half, a plan that critics say ignores research showing frequent visits with family and friends lowers recidivism and aids prisoners’ reentry.

Under the proposed rule change set to go into effect Saturday, visits would be limited to a minimum of two per month, for two hours at a time, on alternating weekends, depending on the inmate’s corrections identification number.

About 100 people, many of them friends and family of inmates, appeared at a public hearing about the proposed rule in Tallahassee Tuesday.

Corrections officials maintain the change will help prison staff manage the number of visitors coming on a given weekend and prevent overflow crowds.

Richard Comerford, the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Institutions, said the changes are also needed, at least in part, because of an increase in people trying to introduce contraband into prisons as well as staff shortages.

“The number of recovered weapons, cell phones, and illicit drugs continues to rise across the state, within our facilities. Many of these incidents of contraband have been linked to visitation,” Comerford said.

But Melba Rios, whose fiancé is currently incarcerated, said family visitors are not the source of the contraband. Cutting back on visitation could have unintended consequences, Rios warned.

“There is no way that by reducing the visits, that you will stop the introduction of contraband,” Rios said. “What you are doing is actually inciting violence and you are upsetting family members.”

A plan by the state Department of Corrections to create video chats has also raised concerns. Many inmates' family members fear the video chats are the beginning of the end of in-person visits.

"We need that hug. We need that kiss," said Shirley Reed, of Jacksonville. "We need for our family members that are locked up to see us, to hold on to us, kiss us."

Several family members and former inmates who spoke at the hearing contend contraband is often brought behind prison walls by correctional officers who feel they are overworked and underpaid.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, visitors are responsible for just 2.5 percent of contraband brought into Florida prisons.

The "drastic cuts are unjustified and will undermine public safety," the SPLC said in a letter to corrections officials.

The proposed change is slated to be reevaluated after 90 days.