Immoral Florida prison rule changes risks increase in violence

On April 4, the Florida Department of Corrections restricted those who are eligible to send an inmate money. Now, only the people on an approved visitation list are able to do so.

At first glance, this may seem inconsequiential. Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll see how serious a problem this rule change may become. Indeed, it will likely engulf the inmate population in a maelstrom of economic strife, theft, and violence.

In an email to me, the FDOC claims that “the purpose of the rule amendment is to provide greater accountability in order to fraudulent, unauthorized, or other illegal financial transactions involving inmate trust fund accounts.”

Fraud is as much a problem in inmate trust deposits as it is in every aspect of online commerce. Still, relying on the approved visitation list to restrict most people from depositing money is overkill. Many in the FDOC refused to comment on the record. But speaking anonymously, an employee in the department’s central office with knowledge of the situation admitted many department veterans disagreed with the rule change. They are very concerned about the impact this move will have on the inmate population. And they’re predicting higher levels of gang activity and an increase in robberies and theft from other prisoners as likely results.

One major issue: This new rule will widen the economic gap between the haves and have-nots of the inmate population. Many institutions are dangerously understaffed. Some estimate the FDOC is 30% below acceptable staffing levels. If expectations for more inmate-on-inmate crimes prove accurate, the fact that the FDOC is woefully understaffed will leave them almost helpless to stop the increase in violent crime.

Even without the greater risk of crime, the bigger issue is, what happens when you have inmates who are hungry and unable to buy food? The Florida prison diet is sparse, at best. Being able to buy food from the canteen is sometimes the only way to stave off hunger pangs. Denying the inmate a chance to have money for food will not eliminate his or her hunger. Does anyone believe hunger and deprivation should be part of an inmate’s punishment? Are we moving back to a time when inmates were fed bread and water?

Obviously, something had to be done to curtail the fraudulent activities. Yet, instead of developing a system requiring people to submit a copy of their photo identification in order to be approved to send money, the FDOC returned to its stock and trade format: “Install the most restrictive means to address the problem.” To be approved to enter a prison as a visitor, a person is subject to a background check and has to have an almost spotless record. This may be relevant to allowing someone into a prison, but it should not be the criteria to send someone money. As a result of the stringent requirements to be an approved visitor, the list is usually made up of an inmate’s family and one friend. A non-family member is allowed to be on only one inmate’s list. This means that a law-abiding, tax-paying individual residing in a free society can only be officially recognized as a friend to (and provide monetary support for) one inmate.

When asked, a high-ranking official within the FDOC (someone who may be involved in the rule change) claimed to be unaware of the visiting list criteria. This did not dissuade him from endorsing the new rule.

The new rule brings many questions. What will happen to inmates who have been locked up so long most of their family members have died, leaving them to rely on friends’ generosity to survive? What about convicted felons who have changed their lives and want to help someone in prison? How can they help if they are unable to gain visitation approval?

Obviously, money is a pillar of most societies. Prison is no different. Many of life’s necessities can only be obtained with money. The FDOC provides a paltry supply of health and comfort items for indigent inmates: a small, hotel-styled bar of soap and a tube of generic toothpaste once a week, one roll of toilet paper every 10 days, and a toothbrush every three months. Inmates must buy decent soap, shampoo, deodorant, dental floss loops, vitamins, and skincare products from the canteen.

Of course, as there will be fewer inmates receiving money, there will be more indigent inmates receiving health and comfort supplies. I spoke on condition of anonymity with a corrections officer at one of the prisons assigned to Caustic Control, the position in charge of distributing the health and comfort items. The officer said they are unaware of any changes to the health and comfort policy.

The bottom line: While creating a fraud-resistant deposit mechanism for inmates is an accomplishment, using the approved visitation list is too restrictive. This list was instituted to keep out individuals who pose a security threat to a prison. There should be a separate mechanism used to regulate inmate trust fund deposits, a method that does not leave inmates hungry and deprive them of basic personal hygiene items.

Robert Lefleur works as a prison consultant.

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