State Politics

Cash-strapped Florida prison agency wants private vendor to profit from inmate visits

Members of the Campaign for Prison Reform hold a press conference outside of the Governor's Mansion Thursday, May 31, 2018, to announce that if the prison visitation cutbacks go forward as expected, they will boycott the company that will profit off cash transfers and video visits by family members to inmates, JPay Inc. Pictured from left: Gail Williams, mother of an inmate; Aggy DiTullio, wife of an inmate; Mallory Naber, former corrections officer; Jewie Tryon, wife of an inmate; and Judy Thompson of Forgotten Majority.
Members of the Campaign for Prison Reform hold a press conference outside of the Governor's Mansion Thursday, May 31, 2018, to announce that if the prison visitation cutbacks go forward as expected, they will boycott the company that will profit off cash transfers and video visits by family members to inmates, JPay Inc. Pictured from left: Gail Williams, mother of an inmate; Aggy DiTullio, wife of an inmate; Mallory Naber, former corrections officer; Jewie Tryon, wife of an inmate; and Judy Thompson of Forgotten Majority. meklas@miamiherald.com

Faced with in-person visitations slashed in half and an offer to pay for the privilege, a coalition of inmate families and reformers announced Thursday they will fight the Florida Department of Corrections where it hurts: in the pocketbook.

The Campaign for Prison Reform said it will boycott a new FDC program that will allow a private company, JPay Inc., to profit off video visitations of inmates when they are used to replace in-person visits.

"We have pocket power. We have financial power,'' said Judy Thompson, director of the Forgotten Majority, a Jacksonville-based advocacy group at a press conference outside the Governor's Mansion on Thursday.

The new prison visitation policy, expected to be implemented this summer, will allow inmates to meet with visitors every other weekend instead of every weekend.

A year earlier, in April 2017, FDC signed a single-source contract with JPay to install multimedia kiosks and tablets for use by inmates at no cost to the state. FDC then started encouraging families to replace the in-person time with video conferences, arguing it will be safer and easier to handle because of prison staff shortages.

But the families are pushing back. In addition to boycotting the video visitation program used at the kiosks, the families of the 97,000 inmates will also boycott the JPay program used to transfer money to inmate accounts set up by the Florida Department of Corrections. Rather than letting JPay profit off cash transfers and purchases, families will now send money to the accounts using wire and bank transfers and circumvent the programs, Thompson said.

"That's going to hurt in the groin, where it should,'' she said.

Both FDC and JPay charge a fee for the transactions. To transfer $20 to an inmate account to purchase food from the commissary and other provisions, for example, the family pays $4.95. To transfer $100, the charge is $11.95.

After the JPay deal was cut, FDC announced the new visitation policy, blaming staff shortages and a continued increase in illegal drugs, cellphones, weapons and other contraband.

But Thompson, and many in the Campaign for Prison Reform, cite FDC statistics that show that 2.5 percent of the illegal drugs and other contraband introduced into prisons comes from visitors and, they say, the remaining 97.5 percent comes from staff — many of them as young as age 18, who the family members say are easily manipulated by the inmate population.

(FDC publishes reports related to visitor contraband and also blames "throw-overs" — people who throw contraband over the perimeter fence — for its problem. The agency has prosecuted some officers, but will not detail the extent of its staff-induced contraband troubles.)

"This whole thing is not about being safer if we cut back on visitation,'' Thompson said. "This whole thing is about pushing video visitation at a price of $2.95 for 15 minutes. It's all about money."

FDC, however, said that while it is encouraging the video visits, the agency "does not make any commission off of video visitation."

"It's important to note, they [JPay] are implementing this technology in our institutions at no cost to Florida taxpayers, and they also provide monitoring for these services which is necessary in a correctional environment,'' said Patrick Manderfield, FDC spokesperson.

FDC held a second hearing on the visitation cutbacks Thursday, and nearly 100 family members spoke.

The reduced prison visits are only one of the deep cuts the agency is making this summer. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature passed and signed a prison budget that had nearly a $50 million deficit, forcing the agency into deep cut mode.

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To cover the hole, FDC last week finalized cuts of $28 million to dozens of privately run inmate transition and treatment programs that had a proven track record of preventing offenders from returning to crime and drugs.

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Aggy DiTullio said her husband, who is in prison for life without parole, did not have a drug problem until he was incarcerated and now is addicted to K2, the synthetic marijuana.

"There's so much contraband brought in by the prison staff, it's a full-time job to stay clean,'' she said. After her husband had been attending drug treatment meetings with a facilitator in the last year, he was sober for six months. Then the facilitator had a medical emergency and rather than replace him, the warden stopped the program.

After six weeks without therapy, her husband relapsed. DiTullio, who pays for her husband to take college classes, said she is worried it may all be a waste of money.

"These visitation cuts are going to affect us immensely," she said, her dog Bob at her side. "Without them, there is no way to make sure our loved ones are staying on the right path."

Reformers say the cuts are shortsighted and will end up costing Florida taxpayers more in longtime incarceration costs, lead to more crime as inmates leave prison and get arrested again, and tear up more families.

FDC's most recent analysis shows that inmates who spend more time visiting their families, and those who get the drug treatment and job training programs, return to prison at less than half the rate of those inmates who don't have that support.

According to the 2016 report, inmates released directly from prison returned to crime 27 percent of the time. Those who go through the work-release programs that are being cut returned only 13 percent of the time.

Why is this important? The report provides the answer:

"Given that 86 percent of inmates housed in Florida prisons today will one day be released back into our communities, those responsible for the state’s planning and budgeting need to know the likelihood that an inmate who is released today will one day return to Florida’s prison system,'' the report states.

"More importantly, for the public and those charged with ensuring public safety, the state’s recidivism rate is an important measure of criminal activity produced by released prisoners."

The coalition, which includes Florida’s Campaign for Prison Reform (a newly established 501c4), Fight Toxic Prisons, Forgotten Majority, Florida Cares, Stop Prison Abuse Now, Inmate Wives for Christ, and Cons for Cons, called on the Legislature and Scott to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Florida through an effective compassionate care release program.

They want the Legislature to call a special session to close the funding gap.

"It's cutting the only really good rehabilitation programs that agency has in place,'' said Lakey Love of the Campaign for Prison Reform.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas
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