Tiffany Robinson hasn’t held her child since the day he was born.
She entered the Florida prison system as a 37-year-old mother of two.
After birthing her son Legend Walker shortly following incarceration, she became a mother of three.
Robinson was sentenced to 12 years in prison with a 10 year-probation last August for embezzling over $351,000 from the University of Florida as a UF Transportation and Parking Services employee.
She has had physical contact with her son for a total of one hour during his first 18 months.
“It’s a big traveling distance, and my mom’s a little older. She hasn’t been able to make the trip yet to see me,” Robinson said, while tears welled up in her eyes. “I just want to be able to hold my one-year-old son.”
Her sentence took her to Gadsden Correctional Institution in Gadsen, Florida. Robinson’s mother, Kathy Tuggerson, takes care of Robinson’s three children in Hawthorne — nearly two hundred miles away.
Robinson isn’t alone in missing vital time with her newborn. Attorneys across the state brought the issue to the attention of Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach.
Powell filed SB 1326 in late February which would require the inmate be placed in the nearest facility to their child and allow for extra visitation.
“I think it’s inhumane. Me being a parent and having a child myself, understanding how important it is that you have that physical contact with your child, that you have, what my wife says, was skin-to-skin, that moment of bonding,” Powell said.
Currently, inmates with newborns are held to the same visitation rules as all other inmates.
Inmates who have had their baby up to one month before or nine months after sentencing could be affected by the bill, excluding mothers who have the potential to endanger their child.
The bill would allow mothers visitation every day for the first six weeks of the newborn’s life, then at least four days a week until the child’s first birthday. During visits, the mother will be allowed to hold, nurse and interact with the baby.
The Florida Department of Corrections is reviewing the bill and looks forward to working with the Florida Legislature, said Michelle Glady, a FDC spokeswoman.
Powell filed the bill a week before Florida’s legislative session commenced on March 5. It has yet to be scheduled for a hearing and must pass through the Florida House and Senate before Gov. Ron DeSantis can sign it into law. Powell said he is confident that the legislation will move despite the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, thinks Powell is onto something and said he plans on talking to Powell about the bill.
“I would certainly support doing something in that direction,” he said. “I am afraid the fiscal might be difficult to calculate, in terms of personal, but I think the goal of it is on track.”
Powell was unsure of how many inmates the bill would affect, but said numbers don’t necessarily matter.
“One mother not having access to her child or being able to develop that bond is way too many,” he said.
A month after Robinson’s sentence she wrote a letter to the judge, requesting a time reduction. It was immediately denied.
“I was hurtin’ you know? But because I just knew my kids needed me. But I was hurt at first, but accepted that maybe it wasn’t time for me,” Robinson said.
Tuggerson, 64, retired from her custodian job at UF to care for her daughter’s children when Robinson went to prison.
Occasional phone calls and letters were the extent of their communication with her daughter due to money, she said.
“It did a lot to them. (Jerome’s) been out of school. Kicked all the way out,” Tuggerson said.
Jerome Robinson, 15, said his separation with his mom brought out his anger issues. He began skipping school, smoking and drinking.
“When she got taken away everything just fell down, fell down hill,” Jerome said.
Tuggerson said the separation affected the baby, too.
“He really needed his mom. He cries a lot. You can tell he was different from other newborn babies,” she said.
Robinson hopes reform will come for all incarcerated families.
“Find a way to keep these families together instead of tearing them apart. Locate them closer to where they live.” she said. “I am going to do this for them. I am going to fight to the end.”
Powell said this bill is a first step in the conversation for criminal justice reform.
“We have not put restrictions on what could happen after a year, but we just felt like in this case, at this time, at least getting this language pushed forward,” he said. “There are so many things we’d like to do with regard to women being incarcerated.”
Tuggerson plans on taking Jerome and Legend to visit their mother in a few weeks.