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.

He makes other trips if he can round up enough passengers, but Spriggs's three regular routes are well fixed. On one he stops at ten institutions in the vicinity of Florida State Prison at Starke, including Union, Baker, Columbia, and New Rivers. On another route are Mayo and Cross Cities (Perry will be included on this route). And there's this one, Hamilton-Madison-Jefferson. Every two or three months, on a Sunday, he'll take a van out to Belle Glade. Then he'll occasionally make a couple of overnight trips, to Jackson on the Georgia border, and to Liberty and Calhoun.

In small-town Florida, prisons often are a saving grace to local economies, where agricultural industry has declined and residents have moved to urban areas for better opportunities. For a town struggling to lure new businesses, a prison is a plum A a nonpolluting enterprise in no danger of going out of business. With an operating budget of about $16 million annually and a staff of 250 to 300 people (many of whom are locals), the average Florida prison also boosts the economies of nearby municipalities by creating other jobs in the community; the Department of Corrections estimates each dollar paid in salaries results in a $2.60 benefit to the local economy. In addition to the new Perry institution, the state also just opened a similar one in Washington County. (Additionally, four privately run prisons are planned in Florida but haven't been built.)

To people not too familiar with U.S. culture, some of whom visit their incarcerated relatives via the Prison Connection, the isolated hamlets they pass through are strange and unappealing. "I don't understand how people live here," says Luz, a Nicaraguan who visits her son at Mayo. (Luz was among several customers interviewed on a separate trip last year to Mayo-Cross Cities.)

"There's nothing here," adds Silvia, a woman with harshly dyed blond hair and small shiny eyes who migrated to Miami from Cuba in 1980. She too has been riding to Mayo to see her son. Now 23 years old, he was locked up two years ago on drug charges. "Mi hijo. He's so young. His father and I have been separated for a long time, and I had to work, and I just couldn't spend enough time with him. It's so hard to survive, and to keep a relationship together, and to make sure your kids are all right." Silvia shakes her head, gazing at a snapshot of her hijo taken on her last visit. He is disarmingly handsome in his gray prison jumpsuit. "It's different here," Silvia contends. "In my country, you always had relatives around, everyone was together and shared everything."

Luz is afraid her son will be deported because he isn't a U.S. citizen. She maintains that he was falsely accused of raping a neighbor. "Una vieja como yo," she protests. "She's an old woman like me. I'm not blind for my son, but I don't believe he did it. His defense was completely incompetent." Hardly an old woman, Luz looks to be in her mid- or late-forties; her straight, shoulder-length black hair is well tended, and she dresses simply but stylishly. Her restrained manner seems sophisticated, but perhaps that's just sadness. With the swampy countryside flying past, she and Silvia like to talk about food; Luz, partial to Mexican and Central American cuisine, will go on about thick warm corn tortillas that you wrap around carne asada, guacamole, the array of spicy salsas. Silvia verbally savors her food: maduros, smooth garlicky yucca, ropa vieja, indispensable frijoles negros. Then they're at Mayo, passing crumbling country houses with warped wood porches, abandoned concrete-block gas stations, a market announcing a deer-hunting contest. "Ay," they both sigh. "Again the fila de monjas" -- the "line of nuns" waiting at the prison gates.

At 2:30 p.m. Spriggs pulls into the Jefferson parking lot and waits briefly for George to emerge. Motioning toward the fenced field surrounding the prison, he tells of how family members, prevented from bringing anything inside, occasionally throw articles such as jewelry or money over the fence so inmates could go out and pick up the stuff later. "But the guards always see 'em doing that, and they just wait till one of the inmates goes over to get it," he says. "Then they grab 'em."

While the smuggling attempts usually fail, some couples have managed the even riskier feat of actually having sex during visiting hours, at least at one prison. "I couldn't believe it," Spriggs confides, wide-eyed. He explains how it works: Several visitors and inmates will gather around two soft drink machines, sitting side by side in the visiting room. They push the machines apart a little, just enough for two people to squeeze in, shielded from the guards by the crowd. "This pregnant girl was telling me this, and I said, 'Why, you can't do that,'" Spriggs relates. "And she says, 'Well, how do you think I got this baby?'"

Aside from brief visits to chaplains' and directors' offices to hand out his information packets, the 53-year-old Spriggs says he never has seen the inside of a prison. Formerly the proprietor of a gas station, he got into this business fourteen years ago as a driver for the Prison Connection. Three years later the owner of the business decided he wanted to expand to other states and build up a franchise operation of sorts. Spriggs bought the rights to the name in Florida, while the former owner established Prison Connections elsewhere in the U.S. Over the years, Spriggs has become quite knowledgeable about Florida's correctional system and about prison life, at least as knowledgeable as someone who's never served time can be. He says he likes to provide a little extra for his clients, such as handing out monthly editions of Prison Life, a national magazine written and edited entirely by convicts.

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