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Prisoner Rights Advocates Rally Against Visitation Cutbacks In Florida Prisons

They arrived in street-parked caravans carrying stark white banners and neon signs with slogans like, "Invest in people, not in prisons."

Several of them donned black-and-white striped prisoners costumes as they gathered to the screech of the megaphone and the beat of a snare drum. Around 50 protesters were barred from the building by police tape.

Family members of prisoners and representatives of community organizations advocating for prisoners’ rights assembled in front of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) public visitors entrance Thursday morning to protest recent cancellations of weekend visitations at several state institutions.

In the past month, weekend visitation has been canceled at 13 Florida prisons “in response to significant contraband recoveries” and subsequent investigation, according to FDC press releases. What is considered contraband can range anywhere from weapons and drugs, to cell phones and tobacco.

Though the cases have been preliminarily linked to “throw-overs” -- individuals from outside the facility attempting to throw contraband over the perimeter fence -- FDC press releases also announced the arrest of three correctional officers for the introduction of contraband during the same span of time and at the same institutions that had weekend visitations canceled.

In a phone interview, Michelle Glady, FDC communications director, made no comment on the contraband issues, stating only that, “We hope to resume normal visitation as soon as possible. We would never make permanent blanket cancellations to visitation at our facilities.”

This is not the first time the members of Supporting Prisoners and Real Change (SPARC), Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) have assembled in Tallahassee to rally for inmates' rights in Florida prisons.

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, families and activists gathered in solidarity with Operation PUSH, “an initiative by prisoners across the state of Florida who plan to go on strike by laying down in their cells and refusing work assignments in protest against the inhumane environmental and brutal labor conditions in the Florida Department of Corrections,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, coordinator of FTP.

"The prisons exploit the incarcerated as slaves without paying them fair wages for their work or implementing basic environmental health standards. They censor free-thought books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and ignore prisoner complaints about abuses from correctional officers. They have no way to make themselves heard; even refusing to eat can be considered an attempt to incite a riot," Tsolkas said.

“The last time we protested here on Jan. 16, we were able to sit in the FDC lobby for five hours before the police made us leave,” said Tyler Crown, a senior political science student at Florida State University and student activist. “Now they’ve blocked off the entrance with DO NOT CROSS tape and police guards, so we can't even get inside.”

The FDC public visitor doors opened only for guards to swap shifts and once when FDC Deputy Secretary of Institutions Ricky Dixon formally addressed the crowd.

“Please keep off the landing for your safety as well as the safety of the police,” Dixon said while standing outside the building. “Be sure that your activities remain peaceful. Any attempt to access this prohibited area or failure to maintain a peaceful protest will be considered an act of trespass."

The police guarding the visitors entrance and the FDC did not respond to our requests for a comment on any of the issues presented by rally-goers nor was any reason given as to why access to the building was restricted. "We're not at liberty to comment, please stay within the designated areas," police officers on site said.

Rally participants took turns at the microphone to speak their piece and give testimonies of the conditions inside state prisons.

"My daughter's father served every day of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery, he rarely got to hug his own child," said Karen Smith, secretary and organizer for Gainesville's IWOC. "He had never touched drugs before being imprisoned, and we absolutely never gave him any during visitation. He passed away in 2013 from a drug overdose within a year of being let out due to an addiction he developed while incarcerated. He suffered irreparable emotional and mental damage that he simply could not live with."

“We know that most of the contraband is getting in via the correctional officers. They’re just using it as an excuse to roll back physical visitation so that they can implement video visitation through their new contract with JPay,” said Judy Thompson, president of Forgotten Majority, Inc., a community organization that works to address injustices in both the FDC and the Florida legal system for the well-being of prisoners.

In August 2017, the FDC began the process of implementing multimedia services by using interactive kiosks through JPay Inc. The kiosks offer monitored video visitation for $2.95 per 15-minute session for prisoners and their families. Electronic communication reduces the potential for contraband circulation and can also be used for educational purposes. The contract with JPay comes at no cost to the state or Florida taxpayers, according to the FDC website.

"The FDC receives no revenue from the contract; it's funded by the prisoners and their visitors paying for the videos," FDC Operations Manager John Bryant said. "The kiosks will provide more media services for inmates for education or entertainment, featuring approved music and movies. The weekend visitation cancellations are just a coincidence, they have nothing to do with the contract and are a separate issue entirely."

Although the FDC refused to consent to an official meeting between Jones and representatives from the organizations, General Counsel Kenneth Steely and Institutions Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon agreed to meet with a limited number of student activists including Crown, and phone-conference with two FTP members, including Tsolkas, on March 7, a day before the planned protest, to discuss issues.

“They claimed that the cutbacks on visitation and the transition to video visitation was just a coincidence, and that many of our demands to address inmate grievances weren’t under their jurisdiction. They refused to comment or give opinion on any of the other institutional problems we brought up,” Crown said.

“Secretary Jones didn’t make an appearance, and the FDC refused to agree to any future meetings, so we resolved to show up in person as planned on International Women’s Day (March 8) to try to get a 1 p.m. meeting for that day,” Tsolkas said.

An FDC employee reached by phone on Monday said Jones was in a meeting on March 7 at the Capitol.

Jones sent out an email to FTP and advocates later that day generally addressing their complaints:

“The Department is not involved in sentencing, and we do not offer opinions on the court’s decisions. It would be inappropriate,” the email reads. “Our job as outlined in law is to carry out the sentence of the court. We do not have a role in setting policy on issues like parole, shorter sentences, the release of inmates or the payment for their labor. Those decisions are for lawmakers. My job is to operate the prison system in a transparent manner and to serve as a data source to allow policymakers to make informed decisions in the best interest of the state, the public and the incarcerated.”

The email also reads, “I stand committed to make fair and transparent decisions that are within my control - canteen costs, visitation, staff accountability and the daily operation of our facilities. You will find we communicate on those decisions publicly and offer a forum for both inmates and their loved ones to have a voice or raise a grievance.”

Without any subsequent response or reaction from the police in front of the FDC building or the staff inside, the rally continued on to the Capitol building with the aim of drawing attention from legislators to the issues within state prisons.

"We want to see our loved ones, and we want to see them now!" chanted protesters as they paraded up the sidewalk and across traffic to the Capitol building.

Rally participants marched their way up the floors of the building, presenting their grievances to the governor’s and representatives’ offices while still carrying their banners and signs.

Families of the incarcerated sat quietly in the Florida Senate Legislative Session while wearing their striped prisoner’s costumes as a visual demonstration of their protest.

Before leaving, Thompson and a few of the other organizers for the event left documents detailing the changes in weekend visitation with a secretary from Representative Frank White’s office for him to review later.

“He’s listened to our concerns about problems with the prisons before, so I trust that he’ll hear us out on this matter and try to help,” Thompson said.

Frances is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.