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.

Right now, Spriggs says, he knows of no other prison-transportation service operating out of South Florida. A few other companies have started and fizzled, usually in less than a year. "People don't realize what the cost involved is," Spriggs opines. "A van is around $30,000. It costs $5800 a year for a commercial insurance policy. Wear and tear on the van. An 800 number. We mail out about fifteen information packets a week A a letter, train schedule, our business card, a flyer. A lot of these people just get into it over the weekend, and that doesn't usually work too good."

Dennis and Beverly Spriggs put in long hours advertising their service. About every three or four months, Dennis spends a few weekdays swinging by as many prisons as he can, handing out information packets, including a poster with the Prison Connection's 800 phone number, for display on inmate bulletin boards. Sometimes the officials just throw the materials away. The Spriggses also must contend with outdated flyers from long-dead companies with disconnected phone numbers, which the administrators neglect or refuse to rip down. Right now he and Beverly are trying to get a list of all 56,000 inmates in the state Department of Corrections system so they can mail each one a notice about their service. "You gotta let them know," Spriggs notes. "Then they're gonna tell their families about us and get them to call. A lot of people have no idea something like this exists."

Visiting days are the only times a lot of the female inmates get to see their small children, and George says the scene at Jefferson at day's end is usually an unhappy one. "It's really sad to see little kids crying and holding on to their mothers when they have to leave, while the grandparents are trying to pull them away," he says. For George and his wife, though, parting has lost some of the deep despair of past months. Things are better on the inside, too. After a year of rising at 4:00 a.m. to spend eight hours a day tossing wet laundry into dryers, Nancy has been assigned a new job in the law library, where she writes legal briefs.

George says that because she is older than most of the other inmates (Department of Corrections figures reveal the predominant inmate age group is from 30 to 34), his wife has the advantage of being left alone by the "cliques" that control most social aspects of prison life, right down to what TV programs are watched. "She says they fight over everything," he confides. "The littlest things. But she stays out of it, and they don't bother her." He has made plans to drive back up on Christmas Eve, spend the night in a motel and Christmas at the prison.

"I don't think she ever thought she'd be here much past her first Christmas," George reflects. "Now this is the third, and she's thinking in terms of how many more she has to go." Their son will celebrate the holiday at home with friends.

Pearlie and Janet are in good spirits when Spriggs comes to pick them up at Madison, and Michelle says she had a really good visit with Charles. She will be spending Christmas with her mother, however, who lives in Belle Glade. Though she knows it's highly unlikely, Pearlie speaks about the possibility that Otis will be released in time for Christmas. "We talked about how much I love him, how much I miss him," she says with a beatific smile. "Doin' things together, cookin' together -- this time of year, we be in the kitchen cooking together."

Pearlie met Otis, a friend of her brother's, about four years ago. At the time he was on parole, she won't say for what, and had given up a religious ministry. "He was a pastor and a healer," Pearlie says, "but he got scared. He really didn't have anybody standing beside him." That's the way she explains it. After they'd been married a year, Otis "got caught with a pistol" and was sent to prison. She's been visiting regularly since then. During that time, Otis has sought to repair his relationship with the Lord, and Pearlie has experienced a spiritual awakening. Pearlie says she's never been religious, and it was only after her husband was sent away that she sought something to help her serve the sentence that his imprisonment had imposed on her.

"I got tired of living out here in this world," she explains, lifting her hands, palms up, then pointing a finger. "I used to drink beer and such. See, the Devil is tricky." She found help, she remembers, during a revival in Fort Lauderdale held by the pastor of the church she attended years ago in her hometown of Lake City, South Carolina. "I got saved," Pearlie notes. "And [Otis] knew when I did. He called me that night and he said, 'The Spirit told me where you got saved.'

"But I haven't went to the river," she adds, meaning a real baptism, the ritual immersion in water to symbolize the washing away of sins. "When he comes home, we're both going to do that together. We'll go to South Carolina." And when they come back, Otis wants to return to the ministry. In the meantime, Pearlie is learning to be patient. "As God is my witness, I can count the number of men I've had since then A zero. Because he is my husband and I love him. If you know you love that person, if you know there's a scar in your heart for that person, it don't make sense to run out and have another person. And that's the way that ball bounce."

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