A new policy intended to stem the flood of deadly drugs into Florida prisons has inmates being sent to facilities far from home, distancing the already vulnerable population from their most important support systems: their families.
Although frequent family visits have been shown to reduce rates of recidivism, the whole idea behind the new policy is to put physical distance between inmates and their family, friends and other people they know.
“We have numerous documented incidents involving contraband introduction and other crimes that are direct results of inmate’s association with local citizens, gang members, friends, and in some cases, staff,” said FDC spokesman Patrick Manderfield in a statement, noting many inmates had spent their “entire lives around in the local community” thus having numerous potential criminal connections in the area.
The new transfer policy, first reported by WSVN, is the latest security measure implemented as part of the department’s increasingly difficult struggle against an epidemic of drug overdoses turning Florida prisons into some of the deadliest in the country. Florida prison death rates have risen dramatically in each of the past three years.
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A spike in overdoses on synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, puts Florida prisons on track to have a record number of inmate deaths this year — more than 500 if the trend holds — up 20 percent from 2017, previously the deadliest year in FDC history.
The black market for contraband in Florida prisons is a multimillion dollar industry, according to former FDC correctional officer Aubrey Land, who served as an investigator on the Jail and Organized Crime Unit in the Inspector General’s office until retiring in November 2016 after a dispute with management that stemmed from his claim that a suspicious death was being covered up.
Drugs are pouring into Florida prisons. They come through the front door, smuggled in by staff or visitors. They’re thrown over the fence, dropped off at work camps, and even delivered by drones. Land says the effects of the new policy will be negligible compared to the scale of the problem.
“They are basically saying, ‘we’re going to show you a picture of a band-aid,’ when you have an arterial bleed. That’s about how stupid this is,” Land said. He said only an overhaul of the entire system, starting with the officers and their salaries, could possibly contain the problem at this point.
As it is now, gangs that run the black markets in prisons have networks across the state, and favors can be called in anywhere at any time, according to Land. Severely underpaid prison staff are easy to buy off, and are often complicit in schemes involving contraband whether or not an inmate knew the officer prior to their incarceration.
“There’s too much money involved,” said former Desoto Correctional inmate Kevin Larkin, who bought and sold K2 — an extremely potent drug that can cause seizures and psychotic behavior — while incarcerated for burglary. He says the new policy won’t stop drugs getting in. “Guys will drive hours and hours to make money [delivering drugs]. If you’re moving people away from their families, that’s just hurting the good people, nothing else.”
Critics say the new policy will put even more burden on families trying to support loved ones behind bars, a struggle under even the best circumstances. It could take a full day of driving, and a motel stay, to attempt to visit a faraway inmate, only to face sometimes invasive searches before being allowed in, or simply turned away at the door and notified visitation was canceled. For many inmates, the combined distance, cost and potential hassles could mean the difference between having weekly family visits and none at all.
“The family and the kids and everything is what makes you want to do well. You take that out of the equation and then what?” said Larkin, who eventually kicked his drug habit at the prison southeast of Tampa and now works to help other inmates get clean. He said family and friends are the most important support an inmate could have.
Former inmate Max Sloan-Hillier spent a year in the system, first at Okeechobee Correctional Institution and then at Everglades. A first-timer serving time for cruelty to an animal, Sloan-Hillier found his footing in the harsh prison ecosystem by selling drugs, mostly K2. Through pushing, he bought protection and other things he needed to survive. While Sloan-Hillier was at Everglades — the prison closer to home — his partner of 22 years visited him every Sunday.
“With the madness I had found myself in in prison — and in this kind of secret life moving cigarettes and K2— for me, seeing him was hope that I was going to get out and things had a chance of returning to normal,” Sloan-Hillier said.
A study by the Criminal Justice Policy Review found that inmates visited by family or friends were significantly less likely to be convicted of another crime after getting out of prison. Land said those with frequent visitors also tend to cause fewer problems while incarcerated.
“They are less likely to go to confinement for rule violation because they want to have visitation time,” Land said. He said inmates looking forward to a family visit are less likely to use drugs. “They’re more likely to abide by the rules and get out and not come back a second time.”
Department spokeswoman Michelle Glady acknowledged the benefits of family visits, but said in practice, the new policy won’t be much different than the past — inmates have always generally been housed far from home. According to an FDC statement, “Most of our prisons are located in North Florida, and there’s not a proportionate amount of institutions located in counties where we receive large numbers of newly sentenced inmates.”
Put more directly, there are more inmates from South Florida than their are prisons in the area.
For decades, the department has offered “Good Adjustment Transfers,” frequently to a prison closer to home, as an incentive for good behavior. Some inmates wait years for their transfers to be approved. Good Adjustment Transfers will still be available, just not back to the home county. The department hopes the new policy clears up some of the backlog.
“To better accommodate the high volume of transfer requests we receive, we implemented a new process to house inmates within 125 miles of their home county, based on positive behavior,” according to the FDC statement.
At best the new policy still means long, potentially expensive trips for families already dealing with the hardship of an incarcerated relative. Relatives who either can’t afford the trip or can’t get time off of work will be forced to find other ways to communicate with their loved ones — like the private video call and email services provided by private vendor JPay. The Florida Times-Union reported that the cash-strapped FDC received more than $3.5 million dollars in commissions from the service in 2017.
Larkin says in prison a single email costs 70 cents to send. It’s another 70 to receive a reply. Calls can cost 20 times that.
“The whole system just punishes poor people,” Larkin said. If inmates don’t have the money, Larkin said they have to hustle to get it. Often that means moving drugs for gangs.