National News

By Mary Ellen Klas, Tampa Bay Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Posted June 3, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT

Florida inmates' families will have to pay for video 'visits'

TALLAHASSEE -- Faced with in-person visitations slashed in half and charges to use equipment for video visitations, a coalition of inmate families and reformers announced Thursday they will fight the Florida Department of Corrections where hurts: in the pocketbook.

The Campaign for Prison Reform said it will boycott a new FDC program that will allow a private company, JPay Inc., to profit off video visitations of inmates when they are used to replace in-person visits.

"We have pocket power. We have financial power,'' said Judy Thompson, director of the Forgotten Majority, a Jacksonville-based advocacy group at a press conference outside the Governor's Mansion on Thursday.

The new prison visitation policy, expected to be implemented this summer, will allow inmates to meet with visitors every other weekend instead of every weekend.

A year earlier, in April 2017, FDC signed a single-source contract with JPay to install multimedia kiosks and tablets for use by inmates at no cost to the state. The FDC then started encouraging families to replace the in-person time with video conferences, arguing it would be safer and easier to handle because of prison staff shortages.

But the families are pushing back. In addition to boycotting the video visitation program used at the kiosks, the families of the 97,000 inmates will also boycott the JPay program used to transfer money to inmate accounts set up by the Florida Department of Corrections. Rather than letting JPay profit off cash transfers and purchases, families will now send money to the accounts using wire and bank transfers and circumvent the programs, Thompson said.

"That's going hurt in the groin, where it should,'' she said.

Both FDC and JPay charge a fee for the transactions. To transfer $20 to an inmate account to buy food and other provisions from the commissary, for example, the family pays $4.95. To transfer $100, the charge is $11.95.

Shortly before the JPay deal was cut, FDC announced the new visitation policy, blaming staff shortages and a continued increase in illegal drugs, cellphones, weapons and other contraband.

But Thompson, and many in the Campaign for Prison Reform, cite FDC statistics that show that 2.5 percent of the illegal drugs and other contraband introduced into prisons comes from visitors and, they say, the remaining 97.5 percent comes from staff -- many of them as young as 18, who the family members say are easily manipulated by the inmate population.

"This whole thing is not about being safer if we cut back on visitation,'' Thompson said.

FDC, however, said that while it is encouraging the video visits, the agency "does not make any commission off of video visitation."

The FDC held a second hearing on the visitation cutbacks Thursday, and nearly 100 family members spoke.

The reduced prison visits are only one of the deep cuts the agency is making this summer. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature passed and signed a prison budget that had nearly a $50 million deficit, forcing the agency into deep cut mode.