Betsy Fernandez lost her little sister to cancer 14 years ago. Five of her six siblings remained. Fernandez – now 45 – fights to maintain a good relationship with her other brothers and sisters.
And that’s the reason she visited her brother every month at the Avon Park Correctional Institution — every month, that is, before the coronavirus caused the Florida Department of Corrections to close its facilities to visitors in March.
The Florida Department of Corrections reopened its doors for visitation a week ago, a six-month closure that, even after it ended, highlighted the need for further communication between the FDC and the families of those who are incarcerated.
Fernandez’s brother, Johnathan, was sentenced to prison in 2010 for cocaine possession, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and four counts of robbery with a deadly weapon. As eager as Fernandez was to see her brother again, she was equally unhappy with how the Avon Park Correctional Institution operated during the months of the pandemic.
“They don’t want to give us any information at all,” Fernandez said.
During the pandemic, Fernandez emailed her brother every day. The JPay system, which allows inmates to email and VideoGram loved ones, kept some emails from sending for no apparent reason, she said. Conversation was made sparse.
A JPay representative wrote in an email statement, “While we cannot speak to this individual customer’s experience, we take such concerns very seriously and encourage anyone in need of technological support to reach out to our customer service representatives. We are always working to improve our services and we invest millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades every year to increase reliability.”
From the emails that did go through, Fernandez learned that her brother was tested multiple times for COVID-19. His last test came back positive. While he didn’t exhibit symptoms, he spent more than a month in isolation, she said.
Inmates who showed COVID-19 symptoms were kept in medical isolation, tested and monitored by health staff, according to Kayla McLaughlin in the prison system’s public affairs office.
Fernandez tried contacting the Avon Park prison several times over the course of her brother’s isolation and the pandemic to ask about his health. Her daughter, who is in the U.S. Army, sent a letter to the warden. When Fernandez got in contact with a woman in charge of medical records, she received limited information about her brother’s condition.
The FDC took action to maintain the health of inmates and workers in their institutions. They required face masks and offered other protective equipment like eye protection and Tyvek suits. COVID-19 testing was also available.
“Broad based testing has taken place at Avon Park Correctional Institution in order for FDC to focus medical personnel and services to inmates with the greatest need,” McLaughlin said.
Still, the Fernandez clan felt punished by the lack of communication and visitation with her brother.
“We know already that our family member committed a mistake and that’s why he’s in there and paying for, but that’s not our fault as a family,” Fernandez said.
FDC’s new visitation guidelines are stiffer than before the pandemic. The modified visitation includes plastic dividers and no-contact rules. The canteens and vending machines are closed during visitation. Only two immediate family members over the age of 12 can visit per week.
The guidelines are more strict, too, than those set forth for Florida nursing homes that have allowed visitation with some physical contact since early September.
The FDC late last month reached out to Denise Rock, the executive director of the Florida Cares Charity Corp., to see how families were responding to the new visitation rules. Rock told the FDC that the restrictions placed on visitation left families feeling like they were being penalized.
Florida Cares advocates for the living conditions and health of inmates who are incarcerated in Florida prisons. Throughout the pandemic they served as a communications conduit between the families of inmates and the FDC.
“Families don’t often know how to reach the wardens or how to fix that problem quickly,” Rock said. “Having those relationships and knowing how to get in touch with wardens and the right people to contact within the institutions was very helpful.”
In Florida, families may travel the length of the state to visit a loved one in prison and have their visit be limited to a few hours without any sort of physical contact.
“Florida’s about 800 miles in length,” Rock said. “You can be from Miami and incarcerated all the way up in the Panhandle.”