Florida Department of Corrections plans to abolish contact visits
Florida Catholic, April 24, 2000
Susan Podgers was a teen mother in Texas in 1979 when she left her only child, an 18-month-old boy, alone with relatives one day while running errands.
A chain of domestic events which Podgers is now reluctant to discuss in detail prompted Texas authorities to take custody of her child that same day.
The state eventually adopted her child out to another family and gave him a new identity.
Podgers never saw her baby again or knew of his whereabouts. For 20 years, she and at least 10 private investigators tried unsuccessfully to locate him.
"It was right before Christmas he disappeared," Podgers said. "It was as though he had died, and he was the only child I had."
All of that changed in January of 1998, when a private investigator representing a young man on Florida's death row called the Texas woman. Jason Podgers, now 23, was waiting to die on a conviction of double-homicide, arson and burglary.
"It was the most joyous phone call I ever received; it was also the most devastating call I have ever received," said Podgers, now a 39-year-old interior design consultant who divides her time between Dallas, Texas, and North Florida in order to be close to Florida State Prison.
"I am not a stupid individual; I knew the person I might find in that jail cell might really be who (the state) was portraying him to be, but I could not have been more surprised."
"We have so much in common it's comical: He is a voracious reader, so am I. He is very creative, an artists who likes Native American styles, and so do I. He is the quiet type, I am the same way. He is a thinker and more culturally interested than he is a macho kind of guy. He is reserved, I am reserved. We even say the same things at the same time."
Maintaining her primary residence in Dallas, Podgers packs her suitcases once a month for the 14-hour drive (usually at night) to Tallahassee.
When she 1st started visiting Jason, he was detained in a Florida jail which restricted the mother and son meetings to non-physical contact visitations whereby the 2 could look at each other through a pane of security glass while conversing through a phone.
But after Jason was moved to Florida State Prison, he and his mother joined other inmates and their families in a high security room which permits the visitors - spouses, children and clergy - to meet face to face without physical barriers.
The meetings are highly controlled and require police background checks for visitors, as well as extensive security procedures for both inmates and family. Inmates can receive one hug and kiss at the start and conclusion of the visitations, which last up to 6 hours.
"Jason and I hug hard and as long as we can. We go and get popcorn, a couple of Cokes, hold hands, learn about each other and share about how much it means for us to be together," Podgers said. "When you have to watch the planned homicide of someone, each moment is pretty well etched in your mind and used well. You have a finite number of moments together."
But Podgers and others who visit Florida death row inmates now stand to lose their contact visits. If the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) makes good on proposed changes to death row inmate policy, the visits could end, according to Michael Moore, secretary of the DOC.
Moore has indicated the DOC may terminate the contact visitation for security reasons. "Death row inmates represent a high-risk group because they have little to lose by virtue of their sentences," according to an April 5 press release from the DOC.
"Currently, large numbers of death row inmates are allowed to congregate in visiting areas with their visitors and other inmates and their visitors," the statement reads. "This creates an extremely risky situation."
While the state has not held a public hearing on its proposed changes to death row visitation policy, observers say the DOC seems determined to implement the new policy, possibly as early next month. Moore's office cites the potential for hostage taking and possible exchange of contraband as good reasons for ending the contact visitations.
Others states, according to the DOC, prohibit such visits, though observers who spoke with The Florida Catholic point out that many others states with capital punishment do permit contact visits - including California, which has more than 500 death row inmates.
If the changes are implemented, family and friends of Florida's death row inmates would have to limit their meetings to visiting through security glass and speaker phones.
"As a pastoral visitor, that will be very difficult for me," said Sister Dorothea Murphy, director of the Ministry for Justice and Reconciliation for the Diocese of St. Augustine. The nun is a periodic visitor to male death row inmates in North Florida and the female death row inmates in South Florida.
While Sister Murphy said she is equally concerned about the victims of crime and their families, and while she has met with victims rights groups recently, the current policy of contact visits provides a measure of dignity and respect - for death row inmates and their visitors - worth maintaining.
"We know about the importance of the children talking, hugging their dad, sitting on his knee, and this will be very difficult if they are talking through a big wall," she said. "They do have a telephone or voice box there, but I never know if they are listening in on the conversations. I have genuine concern for spouses, parents, children who go to visit."
The Florida Catholic Conference (FCC), which represents the Florida bishops in state, judicial and legislative matters, has monitored the DOC's proposed rule changes. FCC Executive Director Michael McCarron has written to Moore and urged him not to do away with contact visitation.
According to McCarron, the DOC mandated non-contact visits for a period of time in 1979 and it resulted in a dramatic rise in (inmate/ correctional officer) tensions as well as a serious decline in death row visitations.
Clergy and families protested, which led to a lawsuit, and the policy was rescinded. At a settlement conference, it was agreed to reinstate contact visits with specified exceptions now contained in the rules. "To our knowledge, this practice has been followed for the last 20 years without a problem," McCarron wrote in a memo dated Nov. 19, 1999.
A more recent memo from McCarron to Moore pointed out that the FCC has been inundated with copies of letters urging continuation of contact visits. McCarron wrote contact visits help induce the inmates to obey existing prison regulations. "There is perhaps no greater disciplinary action than the removal of contact visits."
As to a public hearing on the matter, a DOC spokesperson told The Florida Catholic that interested parties may request a hearing and that one could be scheduled after the new rules have been formally published in the state's Florida Administrative Weekly.
Yet press releases and memos from the DOC seem to suggest the inmate policy changes may already be final, say observers.
"I feel like I am being played with, like a yo-yo," said
Jacquelynne Perry, an Atlanta-based writer whose husband is on Florida's death row.
Last weekend, Perry completed her third roundtrip drive in one week from Georgia to North Florida. She came twice in order to visit her husband Leo, who is confined at Florida State Prison in Starke, and once in order to participate in a press conference sponsored by the newly-formed Florida Deathrow Advocacy Group.
Last week, the organization asserted a link between a Florida inmate's attempted suicide on April 5 and the threat to end prison contact visits. The inmates at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford began a hunger strike in apparent protest of the visitation change, but the Florida Deathrow Advocacy Group called for an end of the strike after learning of the suicide attempt, according to news reports. The DOC said it is conducting an investigation into the suicide attempt.
Each weekend, Perry arrives in Starke in order to spend a few hours with her husband, who was convicted of murder. She removes her shoes, empties her pockets, takes off her watch, wedding ring, belt, necklace. Her hand is stamped with ink visible only under ultraviolet light for the purpose of identification when she leaves. "Like any of those men look like me," she said.
Perry is then escorted to a locked room and instructed where to sit. An "X" marks the stool reserved for her death row husband.
For their part, the death row inmates are strip searched, shackled, handcuffed to a waist chain, then strip searched and examined again at another security checkpoint before changing clothes and entering the visitation area, according to Perry.
The couple discuss family matters, including issues related to Leo's 2 daughters and his wife's son by a previous marriage. "I don't make any important decisions in our marriage or regarding our family without discussing it with him first," she said.
Others inmates and families play cards, read from the Bible or walk to the vending machine, where they are allowed to purchase a limited amount of items.
"I look forward to driving down there and to know I can hug and kiss him. Everyone needs that human touch to know they are alive and important in this world," Perry said.
"Just that few minutes of touching another human being - If I cannot touch and hug my husband, knowing that the state of Florida has intentions of killing him, I will be devastated."
Susan Cary, a Florida assistant public defender who works on death row inmate appeals from her prison extension office in Gainesville, said she believes the proposed non-contact rules are the state's effort not so much to enhance security but to make death row inmates into non-humans.
Like the FCC, Cary believes the existing physical contact visitation privileges are the most powerful behavior management tool in the state correction officials' arsenal.
This situation is not about what you think of the death penalty or death row inmates, but it is a matter of human decency and respect for families and how our government conducts its business, she said.
"People absolutely modify their behavior so as not to lose the visits. The local prison officials know that - you don't see them in the newspaper saying this is a wonderful idea; this is strictly from Tallahassee," she said.
Although the DOC has only informally announced the rule change proposals, it is sending notices to death row inmate family members and state legislators saying the non-contact policy will be implemented, according to Cary.
"That is not how our public officials should be operating - whether it is the Department of Commerce, Corrections or Environmental Protections. A public hearing means you listen to what the public is saying. That is why people are upset."
The FCC's McCarron agreed, saying all the signs indicate the DOC plans to go forward without a hearing. The FCC sponsored a press conference on the matter last week outside the House Chambers in the Capitol building. McCarron has also met with the staff of Gov. Jeb Bush The Florida bishops have raised the issue with both the governor and lieutenant governor.
"It is creating high tensions over there not only among the inmates, but the guards who work there," McCarron said, adding that he is concerned about the limitation of chaplaincy services that may result from the rule changes and that non-contact visits will have a negative impact on families and inmates.
"The net effect of all of this is a powder keg atmosphere. It should not be done without opportunity for public input at a hearing."
Though she helped organize the FCC press conference on the proposed rule changes, Maryland resident Jo Farr has until now never talked to the media about her relationship with a Florida death row inmate for fear of being labeled "one of those crazy women in love with a man on death row."
Through a letter-writing ministry promoted by a Carmelite Monastery in Texas, Farr began a pen pal relationship 3 years ago with a man named Victor, who is on death row at Union Correctional.
Their correspondence encouraged Victor to revisit his legal options after being convicted through what Farr said was a mishandled defense when he was charged with involuntary manslaughter.
"He was suicidal and felt so bad at the time that he asked for the death penalty." Farr said. "I was able to get him to reinstate his appeals process to try to undo the damage that was done by the defense lawyer."
A consultant for a marketing and financial planning firm, Farr also owns and operates a mail-order business for prison inmates who want to order gifts for family and friends. She advertises in "Outlaw Biker," which, according to Farr, is widely read within correctional institutions.
"It is extremely important for these guys to be able to maintain ties with the outside world," she said. "My objective is maintaining contact."
Farr frequently scrapes the money together to fly from Maryland to Jacksonville, then drives to a hotel near Union Correctional which charges $15 a night for people visiting the inmates. As project coordinator of a team of lawyers working pro-bono on Victor's case, the 2 discuss his situation and their hopes to one day legally marry.
The state may feel there is little need to give contact visits for death row inmates since they are going to die anyway, but Farr and others point out that Florida leads the nation in death row inmates who are later found innocent and released from prison. Additionally, about half have had their sentences reduced to life in prison or a term of years.
"While I don't justify what they have done and assert that all of them are good people, society does not take any responsibility for attempting to work with these people. We basically lock out the humanness of the people that are in our institutions. We write them off," said Farr.
"Presume for a moment a death row inmate doesn't count, then ask a mother of the purpose of being able to sit with her son and talk about family," she said. "They are not dead men; there is a significant purpose in having these visits."