Trip to the Big House

Need to visit a loved one doing time in one of the many state prisons up near the Georgia line? Who you gonna call? Right. Prison Connection.

The Saturday breakfast crowd has begun trickling into the McDonald's at the intersection of State Road 129 and I-10, six miles outside the town of Live Oak. It's a nice, big McDonald's, the kind with a playground. But more important at the moment, the women's restroom is top-of-the-line: clean and spacious as fast-food joints go.

There on the cold tile floor, the room reverberating with regular blasts from the hot-air hand dryer, four women are busy changing clothes, spraying on deodorant and cologne, combing and curling hair, administering makeup to eyes and lips, affixing earrings. Each seems absorbed in thought; the talk is desultory. "Uh-huh, you need to leave them curlers up there longer." "I finally found those pants at Kmart." "I'm so tired -- I'd rather be in my bed." "After a while, you know, sometime it gets to me." The women who walk in just wanting to use a stall and wash their hands glance questioningly at the primping group for a second, then leave.

This same early-morning ritual takes place almost every Saturday at one of several different spots in rural Florida, a McDonald's or Shoney's that serves as a regular stop on one of Dennis Spriggs's prison routes. The tall, easygoing Spriggs and his wife, Beverly, own and operate the Prison Connection, a West Palm Beach-based operation that transports relatives and friends of inmates to many of Florida's 49 state-run prisons in Spriggs's fifteen-passenger midnight-blue Ford van. Because weekends are visiting days at the facilities, he takes a vanload up most Friday nights, driving through the night and dropping off visitors on Saturday morning at the front gates of anywhere from two to ten institutions. That afternoon he rounds them up and heads back to West Palm, where his passengers, who come from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and other points south, catch the last Tri-Rail train, which arrives at its final stop at Miami International Airport a little after midnight.

Services like the Spriggses' fill a distinct need most people don't think of unless one of their own loved ones is locked up hundreds of miles away. Then they discover what an ordeal it is to visit their lonely son or spouse. Commercial bus lines don't go to prisons; they don't always stop in the nearest towns, either. Driving in one's own car to arrive for Saturday visiting hours and then leaving in time to start work Monday is often too taxing after a long workweek. Renting a motel room is an alternative, but finances often don't allow for that. Taking a train or plane to the nearest city and renting a car is too expensive, especially if it's once a month.

On this weekend before Christmas, Spriggs is making the Madison-Hamilton-Jefferson run, priced at $65 roundtrip per passenger. One woman is going to Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, and three are going to Madison Correctional Institution, outside the town of Madison. One man is onboard to visit his wife at Jefferson Correctional Institution, a women's facility near Monticello. All three prisons lie close to the Georgia line, just east of Tallahassee. Each compound consists of uniform rectangular yellow-brick buildings, a guard tower, and concrete courtyard areas, all surrounded by grassy fields and high cyclone fences topped with bubbling coils of concertina wire. Generally the men and women at these prisons aren't the most dangerous offenders. The real threats to society end up at the maximum-security institution at Starke, home of the electric chair (the women's death row, however, is located at Broward Correctional Institution in Pembroke Pines), and to the newer Union Correctional Institution at Raiford. Spriggs also makes runs to these and other nearby prisons about once a month.

The inmates along the Madison-Hamilton-Jefferson route usually are people hoping for a future on the outside, people whose families continue to believe they'll turn their lives around. All the relatives on this trip are worried about the state legislature's recent elimination of Control Release, the program that formerly allowed most inmates to leave long before their sentences were up. Though everyone in prison before January 1, 1994, still will accumulate credit for time served, and some days still can be knocked off their sentences through incentive time A a merit system of sorts A under the new regulations, many prisoners will find themselves locked up several months more than they'd anticipated.

As he loads up the van at the West Palm station, Dennis Spriggs realizes that Eudora, one of his regulars, hasn't shown up. She'd told him she would be there, but she either missed the train from Miami or decided at the last minute not to go. "There's lots of expenses this time of year," theorizes Pearlie, a two-year Prison Connection customer from Fort Lauderdale who sports three gold hoops in each ear and four gold front teeth. "I almost didn't come. Money's real tight." The van, less than half full, pulls out of West Palm without Eudora. Before they head for I-95, Spriggs always stops at the Waffle House, where most passengers use the bathroom and some buy coffee or food. Tonight no one besides the ever-genial Spriggs is in a particularly good mood. Faces are tired; some are apprehensive. The van leaves the city lights behind. Pearlie briefly stops the gospel music tape she's listening to on headphones to quiz Spriggs about the gain-time issue before she, like the other women, falls asleep under a blanket. Clouds drift across the face of the full moon. Only George, the sole male customer on this trip, remains awake to chat with the driver.

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