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.

Things had been going well four years ago when Michelle got the call from the county jail. Both she and Charles had good jobs, making good money -- he was a roofer, she was a secretary. She didn't know he was selling cocaine on the side. "He had the best of both worlds," she says. "But he had to have more, and he was lying about it." After Michelle refused to put up his bail, he stayed in jail until the state shipped him to prison -- first to nearby Belle Glade, then to distant Hamilton. Through it all, Michelle visited several times a year. As the months passed, she joined a new church at which she felt welcome and supported. She got a better job as a secretary for Palm Beach County. She forgave her husband, and has come to see their time apart as an opportunity for change and learning, instead of a limbo of lost income and professional setbacks. "I can't think about those things," she says with a determined pursing of her lips. "I can't walk around with chips on my shoulder. Things has its ways of working out. He knows he's got to learn his lessons. And if he doesn't learn, he's without me."

Leaving Live Oak in sunlight, Spriggs cruises north on State Road 129, crosses the Suwannee River, and arrives in Jasper about ten minutes later. The houses and stores in this tiny town are worn, exuding age and decrepitude under ancient oaks, pines, and magnolias. The small dirt road that leads to the Hamilton Correctional Institution runs straight up to the filigreed entry arch of a cemetery, where breaths of mist still linger on the graves, then doubles left past a firing range to the prison.

Visits at all Florida state prisons adhere to identical rules and routine. Six hours are allotted for visiting each Saturday and Sunday (some prisons allow the same person to visit both days, others just once) and on three holidays designated as special visiting days. Inmates and their guests may sit together at long tables in a common room or stroll outside in a fenced courtyard. Visitors are forbidden to bring anything inside except their identification and some money if they wish to buy food from a canteen and to pay for parting snapshots, which cost from one to two dollars each and are taken by an inmate. "Inmates shall be allowed one (1) embrace and one (1) kiss at the beginning and at the end of a visit, but such activity shall not be permitted during the course of the visit," reads one of the guidelines issued by the Department of Corrections.

The van heads back through Jasper, across railroad tracks, past a drab red-brick housing project, and off toward Madison. Farmland and forest alternate along the highway, broken occasionally by narrow dark-green rivers -- the Suwannee again, the Alatpha. "Somebody needs you, Lord," Pearlie's voice sings out softly. "Somebody's in prison, Lord." Her head moves from side to side to the music only she can hear, a Soul Searchers tape. The van passes farm-supply warehouses and a big truck stop with "Jesus is Coming!" emblazoned in red script on an overhang above the gas pumps. On the outskirts of Madison, it goes by a trailer park, a roadside sign that reads "Wanted: rattlesnakes, dead snakes," and then, just before entering the picturesque town square, refurbished recently to attract tourists, a new McDonald's.

"Oh Jesus I need you/Please stop by a little while.... Come on, Master/Somebody's worried, they need you to stop by/Lord, they need you to bring 'em home." Nearing the Madison work camp, where Otis, her husband, is close to finishing his four-year term, Pearlie reaches into her handbag for a plastic bottle of Sable lotion and a spray bottle of perfume. She rubs the lotion on her hands and fingers, down to her long orange nails, and on her neck and face. Her movements, like her body, are compact; her features are sharp, her gaze behind the clear plastic frames of her glasses fixed on something or someplace beyond. It's impossible to tell her age; she admits only to being in her thirties. She is the mother of three young girls, by a previous marriage. "Please, Lord. I need you to please stop by."

After Pearlie it's west to Jefferson to drop off George. Right before the turn-off to the prison on Big Joe Road, there's a catfish farm on the side of the highway where a few people usually are standing around under the pines holding lines into a concrete tank. Spriggs and George never fail to notice the happenings at the fish farm. "Farm's operating today," Spriggs notes as they pass. "Yeah," George replies. "If nothing else, if your business goes, you have something to eat."

Spriggs drives south to Perry after leaving George at Jefferson. He often stops in to see a friend of his in Perry, or sometimes he'll arrange to meet his daughter near Tallahassee, where she is a broadcast journalism student at Florida State University. A new prison has just been built in Perry, and Spriggs recently left a few information packets about the Prison Connection at the 1000-bed facility. While the Department of Corrections doesn't expect the prison to be at full capacity until this summer, Spriggs already has received calls from prospective customers and will soon add Perry to his itinerary.

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