Florida’s state-run prisons would be allowed to cut visitation with inmates in half to mirror staffing shortages under new rules proposed this week by the state Department of Corrections.
Advocates for inmates and their families object, saying visitation is a boon to inmate behavior and helps maintain family ties critical for the success of inmates returning to free society.
Critical and chronic staffing deficits are straining the operational effectiveness of the state prison system, according to legislative testimony. Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon told state legislators this year that staffing is the most urgent of his many concerns for the safety and well-being of personnel and inmates.
The proposed rules would allow individual prisons to suspend standard visitation schedules and cut the volume of visitors roughly in half to ensure “institutional staffing levels are sufficient to adequately supervise the visitation.”
The inmate advocates said that means visitation will be slashed, because staffing is not growing. The state prison system is incarcerating more than 80,000 people around the state.
“The Florida prison system is perpetually understaffed,” said Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, a sentencing-reform and family support organization.
“Reasonable sentencing and prison reforms that could reduce the prison population and increase staff retention have been ignored [by] the Legislature for years. Cutting family ties to people in prison isn’t going to solve understaffing problems, and it’s not going to help reduce crime, either. We need meaningful sentencing and prison reform from the state Legislature.”
In a prepared statement, the Department of Corrections described the proposed rule changes as “modernizing” prison visitation policies.
“FDC recently initiated a rule development process for modernizing and defining visitation procedures with the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety and security of all inmates, staff, and visitors. … The ultimate goal is to create a reliable, transparent policy to ensure a uniform approach across 50 major institutions, 16 annexes, and other satellite facilities,” the statement says, in part.
The proposed changes would allow a prison to impose “modified visitation schedules” for conditions such as having two or more disturbances, disruptions, or physical or verbal altercations during visitation between or among inmates, staff, or visitors within six months. Four or more incidents within six months of contraband being brought in by visitors would be another cause for curbing visitation.
Denise Rock, executive Director of Florida Cares, a nonprofit advocacy group, noted the proposed rule is much like one pitched in 2018 that met with skepticism from the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee and was withdrawn.
“Increasing visits has proven to improve behavior and reduce reoffending,” Rock said in a press statement. “Conversely, reducing visits and further isolating prisoners only serves to tear families apart while failing to support a rehabilitative environment.”
–Laura Cassels, Florida Phoenix