Miami-Dade County

Visitation cut at Florida state prisons. Agency cites staff shortages, safety concerns

In this March 8, 2016, photo, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones visits with Wakulla Correctional Institution inmates. Citing staff shortages and safety issues, the agency has announced it will curtail inmate visitation for the next 90 days.
In this March 8, 2016, photo, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones visits with Wakulla Correctional Institution inmates. Citing staff shortages and safety issues, the agency has announced it will curtail inmate visitation for the next 90 days.

Citing severe staff shortages and safety concerns, Florida has taken the drastic step of curtailing visitation at all 50 state prisons.

The smuggling of cellphones, weapons and drugs continues unabated throughout the state, leading to turmoil that has threatened the safety of corrections officers, staff and inmates, officials said.

But one state lawmaker said the vast majority of contraband coming into state prisons isn’t coming in from the public; it’s being smuggled in by staffers who work at the prisons.

David Richardson, a Miami Democrat who has spent the last two years examining corruption in state prisons, says that while Florida statute allows the state to curtail visitation, the Florida Department of Corrections seems to be fighting the battle at the wrong end.

“Based on my experience, most of the contraband is walking in the front door by staff, not by visitors coming on weekends,” Richardson said.

Under the new schedule, visitations will be scheduled every other weekend rather than every weekend, based on the inmate’s identification number, with those inmates whose IDs end with odd numbers accepting visitors starting April 7. Those ending in even numbers will accept visitors the following weekend, officials said. Visitation will then alternate every other weekend based on those ID numbers for the next 90 days.

“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,” the FDC said in announcing the new visitation schedule.

“These hindrances make it difficult to maintain the positive environment required and expected in our visitation parks.”

FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the new schedule will be in effect for 90 days, at which time it will be evaluated based on staffing. Holidays will not be affected, meaning visits for all inmates will be allowed on holidays.

Glady said the agency has also been arresting corrections officers involved in the smuggling — and they continue to investigate other forms of corruption that have led to the proliferation of gangs in the state prison system. The gangs are often organized as a means to smuggle in drugs, weapons and other valuable contraband.

Still, family members say curtailing visitation punishes good inmates and their loved ones — and does little to curb the gang activity and officer misconduct that are responsible for the crimes and violence in state prisons. In fact, they say limiting visitation will only increase strife.

A petition was started on calling upon Gov. Rick Scott to reinstate full visitation.

The petition, “Stop FDOC from taking our Family Visitation Away,” had 1,200 signatures as of Wednesday.

“Mountains of evidence and decades of experience demonstrate that inmate contact with family and friends — direct, face-to-face contact — helps to repair and retain the ties that are crucial to the inmates’ successful return to normal life once their terms are completed. Visits help curb inmate discipline problems and violence,” the petition states.

Florida has the nation's third-largest prison system, behind California and Texas. The FDC has 148 facilities statewide, including 50 major institutions, 17 annexes, seven private facilities, 35 work camps, three re-entry centers, two road prisons, one forestry camp and one boot camp. With 97,000 inmates, FDC has a budget of $2.4 billion, and more staff than any other state agency.

But its staffing shortages have been a crisis for the agency for more than two years, causing an increase in violence, inmate disturbances and contraband smuggling.

More inmates died in Florida prisons in 2017 than any other year in its history, and the system has long been considered one of the most dangerous in the nation by almost any metric, including inmate-on-inmate violence, use-of-force by staff and problems with delivery of healthcare.

To retain and recruit more corrections officers, state lawmakers recently approved the first raise in years and the agency is offering signing bonuses for new officers at institutions with serious staff shortages.

Over the past two years, there were violent outbursts at several Panhandle prisons, and several corrections officers and inmates were seriously injured. A growing national movement calling for prison work strikes around the country has led to further concerns in Florida about staff being able to handle possible uprisings.

Violence among inmates — especially those in gangs — is at an all-time high. Corrections officers have been stabbed and beaten, and prisoners have been killed in clashes over the past year.

Staffing is stretched so thin that limits have already been placed on educational and vocational programming at many prisons.

Florida is not alone; many other states have initiated emergency measures to address staff shortages, forcing officers to work long hours of overtime just to keep prisons at minimum staffing levels.

This year, FDC hopes to ease the problem by installing kiosks in every prison to allow video visitation that will be available daily, during normal business operations, and not be limited to weekends. The FDC says the new technology will not replace face-to-face visitation, but will allow friends and family to talk and email through the kiosk.