Facing the U.S. Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong is a massive, thoughtful book written by someone from inside "the belly of the beast," who knows from years of personal experience what works and what doesn't. Ironically, most prisons today are not set up to rehabilitate prisoners but to do the opposite – simply to warehouse ever-increasing numbers of them until their eventual release with little or no practical training to succeed on the outside. Shawn Griffith, who spent almost 24 years in Florida prisons until his release in 2012 at age 41, advocates mightily that the real purpose of prison, in addition to punishment, should be to enable the 90 percent who will eventually be released to cope on the outside and not return to prison within the first three years, as now just under half of all released prisoners do.
Shawn Griffith shows how tough-on-crime politicians, supported by guard unions and private prison corporations, have a vested interest in keeping the recidivism rate high. Instead of fostering in-prison drug rehab, job training, impulse control, and close family ties, prisons continually slash these critical programs to hire more guards and build more prisons. In California, 70 percent of the prison budget goes to pay the 31,000 guards it employs and only 5 percent to vocational programs to reduce recidivism. Until taxpayers grasp how counterproductive this approach truly is in providing public safety, there will be no chance for meaningful prison reform.
This book isn’t just a commentary on correctional problems and solutions. Although my main goal is to present the mistakes that I believe U.S. policy makers have been making, it is also to share the human side of the story. By integrating my own personal experiences with statistics and examples from different corrections systems around the nation, I am attempting to discredit the general perception that the system is designed to enforce and protect justice for everyone. The U.S. criminal justice system is an economically and politically profitable enterprise for special interest groups in this country. The general taxpayer needs to understand how the abusive policies fostered by these groups worsen the U.S. prison problem and the debt crisis through wasted corrections expenditures.
Unfortunately, the system commonly attracts a darker side of people’s personalities, making compassion for those incarcerated a rare trait among many corrections officials. As a consequence, hidden behind the walls, huge numbers of human beings have their spirits broken daily. Secretly, many suffer false disciplinary reports, illegitimate confiscation or destruction of personal property, physical beatings, rape, and sometimes fraudulent criminal penalties. Substandard nutrition, indifference to serious medical needs, and policies that encourage laziness have also become common. These practices help to sustain rates of recidivism, which is defined as a return to prison within three years of release.
What is most striking about this is how successful the government has been at maintaining the invisibility of it through “perception management.” Public affairs offices work around the clock to spin damage control for correctional improprieties into non-controversial, politically correct sound bites. With 5,000 correctional jails and institutions dotting the U.S. landscape, prisoner abuses are rampant. However, much of the abuse is overlooked by unconcerned reporters who simply regurgitate government press releases. Many of them don’t seem to care or consider how such blind journalism affects prisoners’ perceptions of society. Prisoners as a general group believe such ignorance results from an overt acceptance of their mistreatment. Journalists’ acceptance of it is also detrimental to the public’s confidence in their exercise of First Amendment powers. As will be shown, it indicates how far society has allowed the government and the media to mislead Americans about some of our most fundamental freedoms.
This is the story told from the other side, showing the problems and the potential solutions from an inside perspective. If nothing else it is my will and testament. I hope that it serves to heighten the awareness of prisoners, their families, professors, students, policymakers, and the general public to the under-reported conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons.
As will be illustrated, the reported abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay pale by comparison. Ironically, some of those abusive guards actually came from U.S. correctional systems into the National Guard(s) and the military reserves. They were trained how to effectively abuse prisoners and get away with it long before they were assigned to military detention facilities in Cuba and Iraq. What a shock they must have felt to find that American media would no longer ignore their sadist treatment of prisoners — at least not foreign prisoners connected to a war unpopular with the media.
This book is a form of media, and I think a little concern for American prisoners is well over due.
Since this book is about solutions, we must first gain insight about the core problems affecting the prison system in general. Although the United States has a large population in federal prison (208,118 as of 2010), the majority of prisoners is incarcerated in state institutions. As of 2010, the U.S. incarcerated 1,404,053 prisoners in state correctional institutions.1
For that reason, and based on my own twenty years of experience, this book will primarily address the challenges of state prisons, with a heavy emphasis on the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). Florida serves as an especially relevant test case for the changes needed in the U.S. correctional system for two reasons. First is the size of Florida’s prison population and some of the political causes of its growth. In 2010, of the 1.4 million prisoners in the U.S. state correctional system, Florida had the third largest population at 102,279 prisoners.2 Only Texas and California had higher populations in prison.3 However, according to the Collins Center for Public Policy, Florida has seen a twenty-percent increase in the prison population since 2004 when it was at 82,000, with projections of 111,510 by 2015.4,5 Texas and California actually reduced their populations by 1,257 and 4,257 prisoners, respectively. By January 1, 2010, Michigan had shed 3,260; New York cut 1,699; and Maryland saw a reduction of 1,315. Florida saw another increase by 1,527, the second largest absolute increase in the nation.6
Second, Florida has enacted some of the toughest sentencing laws of any state, causing correctional budgets to soar while educational budgets have been cut repeatedly.7 This is a recipe that ensures growth for the correctional industry. Proponents of tough-on-crime laws will undoubtedly propose that the burden on taxpayers is necessary to reduce an equally increasing crime rate. As chapter one will illustrate, tougher sentencing laws have not been created in response to increases in crime rates. Florida’s crime rate had already dropped significantly before most of the tough-on-crime sentencing laws were even proposed. Indeed, the strongest factor in reducing the rate of criminal recidivism is education, especially higher education, the one correctional expenditure that federal and state politicians have slashed. This course must be reversed.
However, in an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, an increase in public spending for prisoner education is the last solution most taxpayers want proposed. In the current political climate, public funding for prisoner education is a near-impossible sell. The only solution to America’s woes that seems to have traction is to cut, cut, cut – at any cost. For the most part, considering our bloated state and federal bureaucracies, this aversion to spending taxpayers’ money is warranted. The level of wasteful spending has put the states and the nation in serious jeopardy.
For this reason, I ask the reader to be patient. This is not a book that proposes solutions that add to the deficit. Neither does it attempt to shift the blame for crime onto someone other than the criminal. There are some mitigating factors to consider, as they relate to sentencing and rehabilitation; however, those factors are only considered to better understand their respective solutions. These will occur by shifting correctional resources to proactive programs that decrease overall spending through lowered recidivism. The solutions proposed herein are based on experience of the problems and logical conclusions, without being hamstrung by special interests that benefit from the status quo.
I deserved to go to prison for the crimes that I committed, and I am not a supporter of coddling prisoners. I am no longer a prisoner. I am a taxpayer. What I am suggesting is that the establishment politicians who have been beating the tough-on-crime drum the hardest are the same ones who have turned a blind eye to the inefficiencies that encourage returns to prison. In other words, the goal has been to grow the prison industry, not to reduce it. If that means ignoring policies within the institutions that encourage prisoners’ laziness and reinforce bad behaviors, then leaders will do it. The politician has appeared tough on crime, has repaid the prison lobbyists with a vested interest in getting sentences lengthened, and has been re-elected playing the establishment game. As disturbing as this may sound, politicians and the bureaucrats who control the system have no incentive to reduce recidivism. To the former, passing tougher sentencing laws increases campaign dollars from prison construction companies, private corrections corporations, and law enforcement unions. To the latter, making policies that encourage prisoners’ ignorance and laziness ensures they will remain unemployable and increases their chances of returning to prison. More recidivism equals more prisons; more prisons equal more job security for prison guards and private corporations; more prison guards equal more members for correctional officer unions; and, more members and private profits equal increased campaign donations to the tough-on-crime politicians who cater to them. This is the main reason that Florida has one of the largest prison populations in the country, not an increasing crime rate. The same applies to the overall nation.
As the Pew Research Center stated in a 2008 research report, “Crime in Florida has dropped substantially over this period [1993-2007], but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even have shrunk them, such as New York.”8 The growth of the prison industry will continue across the country if the system is not reorganized to reduce the taxpayer burden and instill a productive work ethic based on incentive. Inmates should face the same responsibility as citizens by earning their keep and investing in their futures by preparing for the challenges they will face in the free world. By providing prisons with manufacturing, farming, and other productive capacities (as many states already do), and by providing prisoners with labor earnings to assist in their own education and healthcare, corrections in states like Florida will eventually move toward self-sufficiency. 102,000 inmates working and producing makes sense. 102,000 inmates lazing around while the taxpayer foots the bill makes no sense.
This truism should not, however, support the concept of slave labor. Once inmate labor becomes a significant source of revenue, costs to the taxpayer will be reduced. This is the reason when mentioning the need for improving education and the work ethic that I asked the reader to be patient. As the proposals in this book will show, cost reduction to taxpayers and increased prisoner education, incentive, and training can be and should be achieved simultaneously. If the political will of the people supports these efforts, institutional security and private business concerns can be met sufficiently. This is a worthy goal, considering that 95% of all prisoners nationally will be released.9 The primary resistance that reformers will face is maintenance of the status quo. A lot of powerful people have a vested interest in seeing that things remain the same. When the status quo amounts to hundreds of millions of wasted tax dollars, business as usual warrants a hard look.
From Chapter 1
Between 1987 and 2008, the U.S. prison population nearly tripled and one out of every 100 U.S. adults was behind bars in a local, state, or federal facility.3 By 2010 this equaled approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., more than any other industrialized nation.4 Indeed, the country with the second-largest prison population of the industrialized, information-age is the Russian Federation, at 889,598 prisoners, or 628 prisoners per 100,000 residents.5 By comparison, the U.S. locks up 750 prisoners per 100,000 residents.6 In the half century leading up to the U.S. prison boom, imprisonment rates per 100,000 had been averaging under 108 residents “and the number of inmates rose roughly in proportion to the growth in the general population.”7 Since then the increase has been sevenfold.
Why? Are Americans really that much more criminally minded than the Russians or the Communist Chinese? Additionally, during some periods Florida’s prison system has grown faster than that of any other state.8 This statistic not only implies that Floridians have been more criminally prone than foreigners, but also more than New Yorkers, Alabamans, Alaskans, and all other state populations in the U.S.
Stop for a moment and consider how profound such a statement is. This is the idea that tough-on-crime politicians in Florida have been selling for the past twenty years at a cost of over $30 billion. What do Floridians have to show for it? There are 62 major prisons, 77 work camps and community-based facilities, 161 probation offices, about 28,000 correctional employees, and a 2010 operating budget just over $2.2 billion dollars.9
If these dollars made Florida’s crime rate drop significantly more than the overall nation’s rate, we might argue that the dollars were well spent. This is not the case. Even without examining the psychological effects of long-term incarceration on the lives of non-rehabilitated convicts in Florida, of whom 88% will be released, the results have been a failure.10
Gulf Correctional Institution
For instance, I was housed at Gulf C.I. in 2003. I submitted a grievance about a work assignment in which inmates were cordoned off from the rest of the institution. We were separated from water and toilet facilities for hours at a time, doing hard labor in highly humid, 100-plus degree weather. This was a legitimate grievance about a significant, repetitive violation of human rights. Some of the prisoners suffering from the heat and lack of water had already been seen by medical for heat exhaustion and dehydration. They also wanted to file complaints, but some were illiterate and others were fearful of retaliation. For these reasons, I agreed to help them write objections to the work policy.
Two of the primary proponents of the slave-labor policies at Gulf C.I. were Lieutenant Brannon and Colonel Sexton. When these rural, Southern officers learned that the work squad had made official objections to their policy, they were highly disturbed. The unified opposition to sunburn blisters, horse flies, and dehydration was something they had not previously witnessed. Work was cancelled for the day. The entire group of prisoners was brought before Colonel Sexton (who was more red-faced than usual) and Lieutenant Brannon. They had the stack of grievances on a rickety, brown, Formica-topped table in front of them, as their interrogation began. From their seats behind the table, they sneered up and demanded our individual names and DC numbers. They yelled and threatened us and convinced about half of the group to retract the complaints filed the previous day. While the lieutenant was screeching her cigarette-rasped curses at us, she had an ominous-looking, muscular black sergeant standing silently behind her. He had been standing behind the colonel and lieutenant through their entire ranting. He had not moved a muscle, with his arms crossed over his broad chest. We could not see his eyes because of the mirrored sunglasses, but we could feel his glare.
His name was Sergeant Hudson, but most of the prisoners on the plantation-era work squad secretly called him the straw boss. He was the overseer and enforcer for the colonel and lieutenant when they needed to remind the inmates of their place in life. He was known for physically assaulting recalcitrant prisoners and intimidating those who needed to make the “right” decision.
When some of us prisoners refused to retract our grievances, Sgt. Hudson was sent to visit us in our cells later in the day. By the time he came to my cell, he was aware that I had organized the protest for water and toilet access. He searched through my personal property destructively, throwing my personal letters, legal papers, photos, and canteen items onto the floor. He then trudged back and forth, destroying everything under his feet, as he called me derogatory names. He scrunched his face up, got in my face, and tried to compel me to assault him so he could legally jump me with his fellow officers. Although he had already assaulted one of the smaller, less literate inmates earlier in the day, he seemed more hesitant to make the first move against prisoners capable of defending themselves physically. I was closer to his size and I could effectively document and assault if he struck first.
When he saw that I would not strike first, he picked up my new GPX radio. Since he had already participated with another guard in strewing my paper records and letters onto the cell floor, he knew that the property slip authorizing me to possess my radio was somewhere in the pile of hundreds of papers. He ordered me to present my property slip immediately. Of course, I explained why I could not, but offered to search for it if given the opportunity. He said my radio was considered contraband, since I could not provide proof of purchase on demand. He melodramatically handed it to the officer and told him to discard it. The officer slowly placed the radio on the cell floor, put the heel of his boot in the center of it, slowly increased his weight on it, twisted back and forth, and crushed it. Sgt. Hudson looked in my eyes and then left my cell.
Tomoka Correctional Institution
Seven years later, I saw Mr. Hudson again. He was assigned to Tomoka C.I. in 2010 and early 2011. In the seven years since he had retaliated against me, he had been promoted by the FDOC four ranks to the position of colonel. This was a fast pace of promotion, and it sheds light on the mindset of the highest-level administrators in the FDOC. Mr. Hudson has a history of retaliatory abuse. He has had numerous grievances written against him for it. He has suppressed many more complaints through intimidation, threats, and falsified DR’s. The upper-echelon administrators in Central Office are well aware of Mr. Hudson’s record of abuse, yet they have rewarded him and placed him in a position that gives him power over many more prisoners.
Why? Colonel Hudson was still abusing his power at Tomoka C.I. in 2010, threatening numerous inmates who filed grievances with disciplinary retaliation. One of those inmates, Joshua Goss (DC X12457), was called in and threatened with long-term controlled management (CM) confinement. Colonel Hudson made this threat, showing the abuse of his power, while Assistant Warden A. Gordon allegedly sat and observed the entire confrontation without using her authority to intervene. Goss was not threatened for misbehaving. He was threatened for using a grievance procedure supposedly authorized for prisoners’ use by the DOJ.
During a completely unrelated incident, Colonel Hudson came down to B-Dorm in 2010 to address some complaints made about one of his policies. After he yelled at everyone and established that he would reprise against any prisoner who wrote or voiced any additional complaints about his policies, he then asked that any inmate with questions raise a hand. The inmates that raised their hands were immediately placed in handcuffs and put into confinement. This incident was grieved to the Bureau of Inmate Grievance Appeals by a prisoner named James Perez (DC 168772). He filed an emergency complaint to make the top administrators in Tallahasses aware of the retaliation in early 2011. Corrections leaders were definitely made aware of Colonel Hudson’s violations of prisoners’ civil rights. Rather than having these allegations properly investigated, or forwarding them to an unbiased agency for civil rights, the FDOC rejected the emergency grievance and notified Colonel Hudson that Inmate Perez had made a complaint against him. This resulted in an order for Perez to report to Colonel Hudson’s office. Perez is a martial arts expert with a life sentence; therefore, Colonel Hudson’s routine attempt to intimidate him into withdrawing his complaint did not succeed. Perez re-filed his emergency grievance as a regular grievance of retaliation. Shedding additional light on the mindset of top-level administrators in the Central Office of the FDOC, they denied the grievance again.
Incidents of this nature span across different times and administrations specifically because upper-, mid-, and lower-level officials remain in position regardless of political changes at the top. Officials like Colonel Hudson are deeply embedded in a system that has been sewn together by a thread of intolerance and abuse. Governor Rick Scott is probably less beholden than prior governors in Florida to the influence of the union for correctional guards, simply because he did not need their campaign donations. Nonetheless, abusive FDOC officials were embedded into the system before Governor Scott took office and they will likely remain long after he is gone. Unless and until a Governor or Secretary replaces the leaders of the FDOC who have been promoting abusers and exhaustively investigates employees’ records to weed out the mid- and lower-level violators, the abuse will continue.
Columbia Correctional Institution
A germane case in point involved an incident at Columbia C.I. in 2006. Secretary James McDonough had been appointed by Governor Jeb Bush after James Crosby resigned the position in February of the same year. Crosby had started as a guard in the prison system in 1975 and worked his way up, using his diplomatic communication skills to curry favor with state officials and the Florida PBA. As he worked his way to the top, he became close friends with lobbyists and the prison vendors who hire them. Immediately preceding Crosby’s previous appointment to Secretary of the FDOC, he had served as the warden of FSP during the murder of Inmate Frank Valdes and the subsequent cover up. Indeed, similar to Colonel Hudson’s promotions, Crosby was also promoted despite his own corruption and intolerant abuse of prisoners.
After Crosby pled guilty in July of 2006 to accepting kickbacks, he was sentenced to eight years in Federal prison, yet very little seemed to change after he resigned from the FDOC. Many of the officers at Columbia C.I. had been promoted for their high level of intolerance during Crosby’s tenure as Secretary. When Crosby resigned these guards remained at Columbia C.I. and other prisons to continue their abuse.
Around the same time that Crosby resigned in early 2006, I filed a grievance at Columbia. About two days after I filed it an officer named Durham called me to my cell. He told me to pack my property. “The longer you take, the more you will lose when I inventory it,” he barked. When I asked him why he was taking me to confinement, he said because I had cursed at him. I was scheduled to go home within a year and had only been at Columbia for a short time, not long enough to have ever spoken to Mr. Durham. At that moment I suspected that I was being retaliated against for the grievance I had recently filed about the policy of precluding inmates, upon leaving their dorms for work, from locking their cell doors. The new policy was inviting thieves to steal after we left our dorms, since our cells were wide open.
A few days later I was taken to DR court. A lieutenant named Petersen was the primary official of the hearing. He told me that at Columbia they did not tolerate grievance writers. He said he was aware of my history as a writ writer, but that at Columbia I would have to just ignore things and mind my own business. He said he saw that I had years of gain time earned, and that I had a choice to make. “You can plead guilty and go on up to your confinement cell and finish your lesson about minding your own business. We won’t take none of your gain time and you keep your head low and go on home next year. Or ...,” he said with a long pause, “you can plead not guilty. If you do that, we’ll find you guilty anyway and take sixty days of your gain time. But here’s the catch. While you’re up there, one of my officers will pay you a visit. He’ll find a knife under your mattress. He’ll ask you if it’s yours. You’ll say ‘no,’ and he’ll write you a DR for lying to staff. The penalty for lying is the loss of all your gain time. We’ll forfeit every last day, almost eight years of it. What ya want to do?”
I told him that I realized the deck was stacked against me, and I pled guilty. Because I was facing the potential loss of eight years and I saw that the grievance procedure was only a trigger for reprisals, I intended to complete my confinement time and ignore any disciplinary or physical abuse against other inmates. Upon release from confinement, I noticed about 20 packs of cigarettes missing from my property, just as Officer Durham had promised. He had stolen them from me to give to his informants, who would bring him information on prisoners like me.
About a week after my release from confinement, I learned about an inmate who had been beaten down by three officers. One guard had used a walkie-talkie as a weapon. Another officer, named Tate, went into a confinement cell and beat up an inmate named Williams. About a month prior to that, a Jewish inmate refused to buckle under the pressure by officers to give up his kosher diet.
In 2002 a lawsuit had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida seeking an injunction causing the FDOC to provide Jewish prisoners with a kosher diet. The lawsuit was represented on behalf of a Jewish prisoner, Alan Cotton, by attorney M. Jaroslawicz of the Aleph Institute. Attorney Jaroslawicz contended at the time that the FDOC’s refusal to provide Cotton with kosher food illegally obstructed his exercise of religious freedom guaranteed by the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998, the Religious Land Use Act of 2000, and the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.9 The Southern correctional officers at Columbia C.I. did not agree that Jewish religious expression should be fostered upon them in the heart of Dixie. Officers beat the Jewish inmate so badly that he had to have his eye surgically replaced back into the socket. Officers then maced the prisoner directly in his damaged eye.
I witnessed some of these incidents and began to feel troubled at the failure of the prisoners at Columbia to address these issues. After a mentally retarded inmate was given a retaliatory DR for requesting a roll of toilet paper, thereby disturbing the officer, I decided to challenge the abuse. What they were doing was insidious, abusing the most vulnerable inmates who had little or no chance at defending themselves. They were doing it out of pure bigotry and hatred, and they had devised a systemic method of immunity through retaliation against the slightest sign of resistance.
I began to resist by picking eight prisoners who had suffered one form of abuse or another. I approached them and made each swear their allegiance and their silence. I explained to them that the grievance procedure could not be utilized, that we would have to write letters to civil rights agencies secretly, as a group, with proper dates, times, names, and documentary proof of our allegations. The complaints would have to be mailed strategically, with the farthest addresses to agencies being mailed first and the closest addresses last. This way the full impact of the disclosure would be made apparent to FDOC officials simultaneously, thereby providing the greatest potential for limiting retaliation.
We mailed over 65 letters to a myriad of agencies within a five-day period of time in early 2006. These agencies included the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, The Beth Tikvah Jewish Prisoner Outreach Center, the Florida Justice Institute, the Florida Attorney General’s Office, Florida Institutional Legal Services, and the Civil Rights division of the FBI.
We patiently, nervously waited. At first we could tell something was happening because the guards had become angrily quiet.
Chapter 10 Prisoners’ Families Are Not The Criminals
Most families of prisoners are law abiding citizens. As the studies of nature versus nurture have repeatedly shown, an understanding of criminal behavior involves more than an understanding of genetic traits passed down from people’s parents. There are many complex reasons why some people develop dysfunctional or criminal personalities. Moreover, offenders’ relatives are often the most angry and outspoken against a family member’s criminal behavior. Prisoners’ families should not be blamed. They are not the criminals. To be sure, a mother does not want her “Little Johnny” to become a felon or to victimize other people. Contrary to popular opinion, a Bonnie and Clyde is rarely responsible for bringing a thief, a robber, or a Ted Bundy into the world. Sometimes it just happens.
When it does, there are two groups that truly suffer. First, there is the victim and the victim’s family. Second, there is the offender and the offender’s family. Immediately following the crime, the victim and the victim’s family members are most deeply affected. This, of course, is why a felon gets punished as severely as he or she does. The punishment is retribution for a victim’s fear, loss, or pain. The offender’s family members, however, are taxpaying citizens who do not owe this debt, yet they still suffer public scorn in ways that judges, corrections officials, and politicians make worse through criminal justice policies that ignore this fact.
Families are ignored or purposely disrespected in large part because they do not lobby their political leaders for reforms as a unified force. Before families can demand respect and reverse abrasive policies that harm them and their incarcerated loved ones, they have to become unified. They must come together under the umbrella of a union with strong leadership to influence the policies that affect them. This is being developed, and the information for readers interested in joining is provided at the end of this chapter.1
One effective aid for implementing the abrasive policies about to be shown is public affairs departments used by corrections officials to mask the harm caused by them. Anyone can go to DOC websites for the different states and witness a prison system in the light of perfection. According to the public spin on these sites, money is never wasted, prisoners are never abused, and officials strive to accommodate prisoners’ taxpaying relatives without discriminating against them. According to officials, they serve and respect all citizens, including prisoners’ families.
Indeed, Michael Moore was quick to make those same claims in 2002. He was the Secretary of Florida corrections from 1999-2004. During a press interview about the introduction of hand scanners into the prison visitation screening procedure in Florida, Moore said that “visits between inmates and their families are important. Those connections can make the difference between inmates who don’t come to prison and the ones that do.” He also mentioned that he considered visitors customers when he pointed to new policies that will “give a boost to our efforts to improve customer service.”2
Nonetheless, the issues most important to prisoners’ relatives tell a different story, especially those related to prisoner placement, visitation, canteen pricing, and phone policies. All of these policies routinely increase the financial and emotional strain on families of prisoners. Most of these families are poor, which is already made worse by the loss of a family member to incarceration. Studies on the impact of incarceration on families have shown that the average yearly cost of incarceration on those left behind is $12,680, or about six months of the prior annual earnings before imprisonment of the relative.3,4 This is devastating to families who are already socio-economically disadvantaged.
Minorities Disproportionately Affected
These families are also disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. The importance of this fact becomes clearer when the children of these minorities are taken into consideration. In 2010, more than 1.7 million children in this nation had a prisoner for a parent.5 Of those children, half were black, and about eight percent of all African-American children have to visit a prison to see their mom or dad.6 More than sixty percent of incarcerated women are African-American or Hispanic.7 African-American men are approximately six percent of the U.S. population, yet nearly fifty percent of the nation’s prison population.8 In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor has shown in prior studies that over fifty percent of black men go unemployed during difficult economies, such as the U.S. has faced the past few years, and in many ways is still facing.9
This means that when an African-American mother goes to prison, a slight increase in the distance of a prison from the residence of the father and children frequently makes the difference of a visit or no visit because of the price of gas. Mothers left to rear children fare no better. They must work and find a way to sustain daycare without the assistance of the father. In many cases staying at home makes more economic sense. With children of prisoners, a policy increasing a financial burden just slightly can and does trigger the decision by some desperate mothers to give their children up to foster care. Their delinquency worsened by the absence of the imprisoned parent, many other children end up going to juvenile detention centers. This is especially true for those who are unable to partake in contact visitation with their fathers because of the distance that separates them. Fathers are typically housed an average of 100 miles away and mothers an average of 160 miles away from their children.10
And the pain does not discriminate.
Regardless of whether a child is black, brown, tan, or white, no child should have to suffer emotional instability from excessive corrections practices. Officials implement these practices under the pretense of increased security, when frequently the true impetus is increased profits for private commissary vendors, job security for unionized guards, and convenience for corrections administrators. They must know how practices that make visitation difficult or practices that charge excessively high collect-call rates also strain those ties between prisoners and loved ones. This is true even as criminal justice studies and recent re-entry initiatives have advertised the rehabilitative effects of strong family relationships.
Children of Prisoners Suffer the Worst
For this reason, over half of all incarcerated parents reported having never received a personal visit from their children.35 Much literature on the developmental effects of separation from a primary caregiver has been produced. In one report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, sixty-six percent of incarcerated mothers and forty percent of incarcerated fathers reported being one of the primary caregivers previous to incarceration.36 The U.I. also showed in a study that there are specific character and behavioral traits in children that are directly affected by parent-child separation, especially complete separations that disclude contact visits, including, among others:
- Feelings of shame
- Poor school performance
- Increased delinquency
- Loss of financial and emotional support
- Increased risk of abuse by new caregiver(s)
- Impaired ability to cope with future stress and trauma
- Disruption of normal developmental progress
- Increased dependency and maturational regression
- Intergenerational patterns of criminal behaviors37
These findings are made even more troubling when the age of these children is revealed. In prior studies, 56% were shown to be between one and nine years of age. An additional 28% of them were under the age of fifteen.38 As illustrated earlier in this chapter, and as restated in the U.I. report, “facilitating contact has been shown to reduce the strain of separation and increase the likelihood of successful reunification.”39
Even if studies did not show that returns to prison were lowered by the strengthening of prisoners’ family relations, simple concern and humane consideration for the children would demand policies that facilitate visitation and other means of contact. In direct conflict with these findings, states increasingly approach interstate and intrastate placement of inmates based on short-term fiscal and security considerations, rather than long-term effects on prisoners’ families.
Findings of the Legislature and Florida Supreme Court are Meaningless to FDOC
The Florida Legislature and the FSC have verbalized a concern for and an intent to bolster the “frequency and quality” of prisoner visitation and intimate family relationships. To the contrary, the FDOC is renowned for circumventing those stated intentions. The FDOC does this by creating policies of visitation and prisoner placement that conflict with them, while instituting and publicizing other, less-widely adopted practices that give the appearance of compassion.
A program called “Reading and Family Ties – Face to Face,” provides a case in point. This program permits prisoners and their children to communicate over a video-conferencing technology. The live sessions occur weekly, encourage parent/child discourse, strengthen children’s reading skills, and enhance their familiarity with the imprisoned parent. The sessions last one hour and cost nothing to the families. An excellent, insightful program.40
Sadly, this program is not available to male prisoners, who comprise 93% of the population in the FDOC.41 Sixty-five percent of female prisoners have children.42 This means the FDOC is only providing the service to a small fraction of the total prison population, about 4.5%, or 4,700 out of approximately 102,000 prisoners.43 Albeit the program is positive, it would certainly be more deserving of the accolades it receives through the public affairs department of the FDOC if it did not disclude approximately 54,000 of the remaining incarcerated parents because they are fathers.44
Contrary to this program, which affects only a small percentage of prisoners’ children, the facilitation of visits through the placement of inmates within a reasonable proximity to their families would potentially affect 100% of prisoners’ children. The following rule was enacted in the FAC in 2001 and clarifies the position of the FDOC on this issue:
Inmate visiting is a privilege, not a guaranteed right of either the inmate or the visitor. Inmates are not assigned to specific institutions solely for the convenience of visiting privileges.45
Once again, the public position of the think tanks, the Legislature, and the FSC seems insightful and compassionate, but directly conflicts with actual corrections policies instituted by the FDOC. Furthermore, words such as solely used in the rule above make the policy appear more reasonable than it is. Nobody would expect the FDOC to establish a policy of prisoner placement solely for the convenience of visitation. There are many other considerations of security, programs, and fiscal limitations involved in establishing where a prisoner will be placed to serve a sentence. Oftentimes the prisoner needs to participate in a specific rehabilitative program for a parole consideration or drug treatment that is not available at an institution close to his or her family’s residence. Fiscal constraints have also caused the FDOC to limit the number of discretionary transfers. Additionally, most prisoners come from the South and Central regions of Florida, yet most prisons have been built far away, in the North and Northwest rural regions, such as Jackson and Gulf Counties.
Commonly provided to defend practices of prisoner placement, these reasons cannot withstand a simple analysis. Prisoners know that the FDOC rarely places them in an institution with any consideration whatsoever for the proximity of their families. In fact, many inmates believe the FDOC purposely transfers them as far as geographically possible from their families to increase the pain and suffering of the sentences underlying their imprisonments.
The Prison Boom of North Florida
There is plenty of evidence to support this position, including a calculation of the average distance from prisoners’ facilities to their families’ permanent residences. At Tomoka C.I. in 2011, prisoners averaged 136.38 miles away from their families.46 Additionally, since most inmates come from Central and South Florida, the Tomoka number is skewed to lessen the real average that discludes the tens of thousands serving time in North Florida, hundreds of miles away from their families. If a family were to call and try to argue that the word solely does not mean a consideration of the families’ distance from a facility should be precluded completely, the FDOC would simply refer them to the rule and allege that officials are not required to make such a consideration. This is what frequently happens. It is the general, though unofficial, policy.
I experienced this myself. There is a prison in Bowling Green, Florida, called Hardee Correctional Institution. This close-custody institution matched my security rating and is only fifty minutes away from my family’s home in Bradenton, Florida. I asked my classification officer numerous times to be moved from Tomoka to Hardee. There was nothing preventing my transfer. Even the last two-and-a-half years before my release in 2012, my family was required to drive a full five-hour round-trip to and from Daytona Beach, Florida and suffer the expense of a hotel over twenty times. I had a good behavioral record, having received only one minor disciplinary infraction from 2007 to 2012 and the FDOC had no viable excuse for denying my request for transfer. Refusing such a request unnecessarily strained my family financially and emotionally. Most prisoners’ families are being forced to routinely suffer in this manner.
Although there are true limitations on bed space in institutions with programs that are located in Central and South Florida, that fact itself deserves an evaluation. As previously stated, the majority of prisoners in the FDOC originate from the Central and South Florida regions, from the Tampa-Orlando corridor of Interstate 4, southward. From over twenty years of personal acquaintanceships and observation, I would estimate this to be approximately seven of ten prisoners. This demographic has not changed to any significant degree during Florida’s boom of prison construction over the past twenty-five years. During this time, legislators have been aware of the demographics of Florida’s prisoners and their relatives while also advertising the intent to increase the practices that strengthen their rehabilitative bonds, specifically those with children. Then those same legislators sponsored bills to increase expenditures for prison construction in rural areas as far away from prisoners’ families as possible, even signing appropriations in 2009 for shipping Florida’s prisoners to private prisons in Alabama.47 Something smells rankly abusive and self-promoting about these taxpayer expenditures. If the mass majority of state prisoners are located within Florida’s central and southern regions, then why would recent, huge facilities be built in North Florida?
In February of 2012, there were at least forty-one major correctional institutions in the FDOC located north of the Tampa-Orlando region of Central Florida and thirty-four of the forty-one were situated between Jacksonville and Pensacola. Within most counties in North Florida west of Jacksonville, a major institution has been built since 1990. For those like Union County that already had a major institution, huge expansions have doubled or tripled their capacities through duplicate prisons called annexes. Most of these are just as big and commonly house just as many or more inmates as the original, now conjugate, institutions. These annexes, internal expansions, and new prisons in the North Florida region account for over seventy percent of the additional occupancy built by the FDOC since year 2000.
Indeed, none of the following counties in South Florida had a major institution in 2011:
- St. Johns
- St. Lucie
One of the latest additions to the state’s stable of corrections facilities is called Suwanee Correctional Institution. Opened in November 2009, it was built to house high-security-risk inmates who are classified for long-term CM confinement. This institution is larger than most facilities in Florida. It holds approximately 5,000 prisoners; older institutions (before annexes) have one-fifth the holding capacity. Suwanee C.I. is located in North Florida, between Lake City and Tallahassee.
Prisoners housed in DOC facilities such as Suwanee C.I. are permitted fifteen approved visitors, and children below the age of twelve are not counted against the quota. There are many prisoners who have fifteen loved ones including nieces, brothers, grandparents, uncles, etc., and over half of all male prisoners have children. It would be a conservative estimate to assume an average of five approved visitors per inmate. This estimate of five would adjust for those prisoners who are not fortunate enough to receive visits. At this level, assuming seventy percent of inmates’ visitors live south of Orlando, the choice to build Suwanee so close to Georgia means that over 17,000 taxpayers must suffer the time and expense of at least 400 miles (round-trip) to see their imprisoned relative at this prison.
For families who live in West Palm Beach, Key West, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or Fort Myers, the distance (round-trip) is closer to 800 miles. For those families with a relative housed in Century C.I. or Gulf C.I., the total distance to complete a visit is between 1,000 to 1,200 miles. These distances are costly and exhausting, especially for elderly relatives and mothers bringing children to see their incarcerated fathers.
Why does the FDOC build seventy percent of Florida’s correctional institutions in North and Northwest Florida knowing that seventy percent of prisoners’ children live in Central and South Florida?
The answer is complex.
The first reason is economically threefold. To begin, in the U.S. thirty percent of all counties have a jail or prison.48 These facilities, especially in undeveloped rural regions, are frequently the primary or strong secondary source of employment for a large percentage of the local population. In Florida, the northern half of the state is the most rural, least-populated half of the state, and 100% of those counties have at least one major DOC facility.49 Less than 75% of the counties below Tampa have a major DOC facility.
In Jackson County, bordering the corners of Alabama and Georgia, County Commissioner Jeremy Branch stated in response to Governor Scott’s proposal to close three older state-run institutions that closing one of Jackson County’s major prisons would cause “economic devastation.”50 The county is home to both Apalachee C.I. (ACI) and Jackson C.I. (JCI). ACI alone has more prisoners than the inhabitants of Sneads, the small town from where most of the ACI guards originate. Sneads has a population of about 2,000 and forty percent of the jobs have been created by the prisons, work camps, and the Chattahoochee mental hospital.
According to Branch, “[ACI] is the town’s major wastewater-treatment customer, accounting for about forty percent of its entire annual revenue.” He continued, saying that “the snowball effect of those dollars, of those paychecks, they’re just tremendous.”51
This raises the second economic reason: wages. Most people living in rural towns such as Sneads have little more than a high school diploma. Their chances of finding a job that pays more than the starting pay of $31,900 with benefits for a Florida DOC guard is unlikely.52 There is only one major grocery store and one pharmacy in Sneads, Florida. This means lucrative employment opportunities are rare or completely non-existent. This also depresses the wages the FDOC might otherwise have to pay to open a new prison somewhere south of Jacksonville.
Sometimes these points mask an important result. A prison built in North Florida has a huge hidden cost inherent to prisoner placement, because over 34,000 inmates are received and transported to their assigned prisons every year in Florida.53 One gallon of diesel fuel has been costing between $3.00 and $4.50 for the past few years. The expense of transporting seven of ten prisoners from the reception centers in Central and South Florida to prisons in the panhandle (hundreds of miles away) is incomprehensible. After considering the additional costs of vehicle maintenance and security labor for round-trips (two guards per vehicle), the wasted expense of these prisoner placements could easily exceed half a million dollars. This does not serve the best interests of 99% of Florida’s 19 million residents who must pay for these correctional expenditures. Building prisons in North Florida is even more costly to prisoners’ loved ones. It is also emotionally and psychologically harmful to their children who number in the tens of thousands.
The costs are hidden because members of the special interest group that benefits from these tax expenditures do not want such waste to be exposed. The depressed wage expenses are advertised to legislators, who are more concerned with voters’ perceptions of an initial outlay for a new prison, rather than the hidden, recurrent costs attached to North Florida’s prison boom. In these cases, the group that benefits is the correctional officers’ union.
Family Bonds Further Strained by New Restrictions to Visitation
Indeed one of these correctional absurdities instituted more recently is the policy of suspending prisoners’ visitation privileges. It is happening across the nation, as seen in numerous state and federal court challenges against its constitutionality.
Relating to this issue, the Court has repeatedly failed in its duties to protect family ties, as seen in a case titled, Dunn v. J. Castro, out of the Ninth Circuit Federal Court in California:
Dunn is a California State prisoner. On May 7, 2002, while incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison, prison officials reported Dunn for violating prison rules by ‘attempting to elicit illegal sexual relations by phone in concert [with a] minor.’ Dunn claims that he was actually engaging in a sexually-oriented telephone conversation with his wife, without realizing at the time that his child was on the phone. Nevertheless, on January 29, 2004, an Institutional Classification Committee (ICC) decided to prohibit Dunn from receiving visits from all minors, based upon the May 2002 violation. The ICC relied upon California Code of Regulations (CCR) Title 15, section 3173.1, in making its decision.78
The Court, in affirming Dunn’s loss of visitation, relied upon a number of cases that have focused on the security concerns of corrections officials in years past. In the following case out of the same Federal Circuit in 2002, the judges, some of the more liberal in the nation, held that,
[it] is well-settled that prisoners have no constitutional right while incarcerated to contact visits.79
What the courts in the U.S. have done by allowing blanket restrictions limiting visitation is to reach a conclusion that is related to the wrong premise. In this matter, the question should not be whether or not prisoners have the constitutional right to contact visits. A prisoner’s enjoyment in receiving contact visits is a secondary consideration, as it should be. Instead, the question should be do citizens have a constitutional right to policies that achieve correctional security and that pose the least threat of fueling future criminal behaviors. If a criminal’s civil right is the premise argued, then judges and corrections directors probably have a legitimate claim. A prisoner should probably not have a guaranteed right to contact visits. In the end, a felon is incarcerated for using his or her contact with people to victimize them. Part of their separation from society was to protect citizens and to punish and teach a correctional lesson. If this were the only concern, then visitation would be of no great importance.
By isolating criminals, however, whether to cover abuse against them or not, the criminal justice system is perpetuating crime. Isolating criminals does not “correct” them. It does not make them more docile. It does nothing positive at all. Instead, it destroys their family ties, causes innocent children to cry on Christmas or Father’s Day because their mother cannot afford to drive from California to see their father in an Oklahoma prison resulting from an interstate transfer. It causes a mother who already suffered from depression to revert to drug use in prison after missing her daughter’s fifth birthday in a row without a visit or phone call. It causes a son to literally slice his arms to shreds because going to a prison for psychologically disturbed inmates is the only way to get close enough for visits with his mother, who is dying of lung cancer.
The Prisoner Family Union Has Some Solutions
This book is designed to serve as a catalyst for students, family members, and other criminal justice reformers to develop unions in each of the fifty states. The established goal of each state’s Prisoner Family Union (PFU) should be to:
- Pursue criminal justice sentencing reforms that place ceilings on sentences, increase judges’ discretion to make downward departures, increase drug treatment and other community corrections alternatives, and abolish minimum-mandatory provisions for non-violent offenses.
- Pursue policies of prisoner placement that reduce current intrastate distances by forty percent and completely abolish non-voluntary interstate placements.
- Pursue the reversal of corrections policies that diminish prisoners’ familial contact for disciplinary purposes, increase weekly video-conferencing for children and incarcerated parents, in addition to normal contact visitation, and establish a comprehensive private healthcare plan to augment Medicaid for children of prisoners.
- Lobby legislators to pass laws that reverse pen-pal and religious-correspondence restrictions restrictions and other policies of isolation, while instituting other safeguards to ensure societal and penalogical security.
- Seek the abolishment of policies that charge co-payments, reimbursements, and other double-taxation charges to prisoners’ taxpaying loved ones. This would include the pursuit of fair collect-call rates and profit margins on the commercial resale of all goods and services.
- Pursue programs of inexpensive electronic video communications between prisoners and their children that apply to both genders of all incarcerated parents.
- Seek increases in rehabilitative activities such as music, artwork, writing, and hobby craft that can be leveraged to reduce solitary confinement and visitation restrictions as positive behavioral incentives.
- Present the statistics in support of increased drug and alcohol treatment programs and make early release credits dependant on successful participatory recovery.
- Lobby state and federal leaders to institute mandatory GED classes and increased vocational and higher educational opportunities for prisoners.
- Implement agricultural, industrial, and service economies that increase training and financial incentives. This increased work ethic would decrease the burden on taxpayers through a reduction in recidivism and correction expenditures.
These are the top ten goals of each individual state’s PFU. Additional pursuits will certainly develop over time in response to new legislation that punitively affects prisoners’ loved ones. Since most prisoners’ families are socio-economically disadvantaged, reformers who actively pursue the development of pro-family unions must be cost-considerate. Membership dues should be held down to the minimum required to adequately fund legislative lobbying, marketing, administration, newsletters, website development, and subsidies for children’s transportation for visitation with incarcerated parents.
There are many ways to fund non-profit family unions without discouraging participation by less-affluent members. First, in corrections systems that provide jobs with financial compensation, prisoners themselves would be encouraged to pay a donation of $15.00 per year. This would allow them to receive a monthly or bi-monthly newsletter on topics related to prisoners and their families and would automatically make their children eligible for transportation benefits increasing child-parent bonds through visitation.
Second, a rehabilitative program that increases family bonds reduces recidivism. This is a societal benefit that would qualify for federal and state grants to an organization with a 501(c)(3) non-profit status, and all contributions to these efforts are tax-deductible.
Third, not all prisoners’ friends and adult relatives are poor. Those citizens concerned with the issues raised herein who are affluently capable would be encouraged to make more generous donations. The key is to effectively advertise and promote the organization’s agenda with philanthropists who would not otherwise be aware of abuses inside the U.S. corrections system.
For example, in 1967 the Ford Foundation made a $1 million grant to create the National Office for the Rights of the Indigent, for inmates accused of capital crimes.93 Billionaire philanthropists have also contributed to criminal justice issues, including the establishment of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, which has mobilized public support for drug treatment in lieu of incarceration.94 The resources are available and this book is only one of the many activist mechanisms needed to increase awareness.
In the event a member believes that the information provided in this book should be shared with a potential donor, requests should be made to the U.S. Post Office address, the e-mail address, or at the contact information at the PFU website provided in the front of Appendix A. Book donations will be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on available resources and the content of each inquiry.
Fourth, donations made by prisoners would help the PFU assist inmates’ children with visitation transportation costs for up to six visits per year and to provide up to six newsletters per year by mail to the prisoner or his/her family. However, the prisoner would not become a union member in most states because they disallow the unionization of prisoners. Free members would be required to pay $120 per year or $10 per month in membership dues or have a sponsor provide the annual fee. For those concerned loved ones or reformers who would rather offer their services, this would be very helpful to the success of the union. Membership dues could be waived for members who provide research for the newsletter, typing, writing articles, coordinating visitation transportation for family members, mailing newsletters, or providing transportation for members’ attendance at rallies for lobbying in each state’s capitol.
In very extreme cases of hardship, verified by a union director, an immediate relative of a prisoner unable to afford the annual membership due may receive membership for any size donation. Citizens would be asked not to seek this privilege of hardship unless one truly exists so that potential members who genuinely need it could benefit from the services provided by the union.
Privileges of membership would include the following services:
- Monthly newsletter;
- A healthcare plan that covers prisoners’ children who are being raised by a union member caregiver;
- Through community donations, a benefit program of clothing and school supplies for prisoners school-age children administered through civic leaders in each community;
- Annual membership to PFU website resources, reports, and member network;
- Transportation for caregivers of prisoners’ children for parental visitation;
- Legislative activism for prisoners and prisoners’ family related issues; importance of primary concern would be decided by member votes over the internet;
- Select support by phone, internet, and mail of individual member concerns to corrections officials, including probation and parole agencies;
- Select support of pro bono legal aid;
- Select support for typing and presentation of parole plans;
- Select support of EOS packages and other needs of re-entry;
- The establishment of mentors for the prisoner releasee.
In addition to the services above, significant systemic cases of abuse may also be challenged by class-action civil suits represented by PFU civil attorneys. The PFU would also work in coordination with law schools that take on activist-oriented projects challenging civil rights abuses, particularly those that effect great numbers of prisoners and/or their families.
There are already a number of successful programs coordinated in league with law students across the nation. One of those programs, called the Innocence Project, has effectively seen justice in applying DNA to prove the innocence of falsely accused defendants in numerous cases.95
Criminal-Justice & Law Professors Are Encouraged to Leverage This Book to Teach Students Another Perspective
I invite professors of criminal justice and law courses to use this book as an interactive tool for eliciting debates on the criminal-justice issues of the day. The PFU website provides an outlet for discussion, from the perspective of prisoners’ families. Very few books on criminal justice present an ex-convict’s view of the prison problem, leading students of law or criminal justice to adopt an unbalanced account of these issues. This is significant considering college undergraduate students in this generation will be the leaders of carceral policies within a decade. Those students will be the next district attorneys, federal judges, correctional administrators, and rehabilitative program directors.
Students may become completely intolerant or equally balanced in their future applications of criminal justice. If this treatise does nothing more than achieve the latter, rather than the former, then this work has been successful.
Justice Thurgood Marshall stated it best in the landmark Supreme Court case temporarily abolishing the death penalty in 1972:
At a time in our history when the streets of the nation’s cities inspire fear and despair, rather than pride and hope, it is difficult to maintain objectivity and concern for our fellow citizens. But, the measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in time of crisis.96