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.

Spriggs stops the van at about 4:00 a.m. at a bright 24-hour mall called Turkey Lakes Plaza on the turnpike outside Orlando. He and George disembark and return ten minutes later with giant Burger King coffees. Their conversation is relaxed and casual; they might be two men heading out for a dawn fishing trip. Like fishing buddies, they talk about the usual things -- sports, work, the weather, their families. But the family talk is not typical. George's wife is serving a twelve-year sentence at Jefferson, with little hope of early release. He doesn't want the specifics of her case or their real names published, because her crime and prosecution received a lot of attention from the media, the public, and politicians. That was two years ago. Since the conviction, George has moved to South Florida to try to start over again. (Throughout this story, Prison Connection patrons' last names are not used. Most first names have been changed.)

"It's been tough to go through," George says quietly, crossing an ankle over one knee. He runs a pale, narrow hand up and down his sage-green sock, perfectly coordinated with pants of the same color and a yellow button-down shirt. The lenses of his eyeglasses are thick and yellow-tinted. Even his neat white-blond mustache and hair go with the color scheme. "My life's ruined. I lost my home, my cars, my friends, my everything. I ended up with just me and my old dog." Now even the dog, he explains -- an eleven-year-old English bulldog -- is so sick he may die at any time.

George doesn't make excuses for his 43-year-old wife, Nancy, whom he had hired out of high school to work in his successful real estate business. As an officer of the company, she scammed a million dollars from dozens of investors, some of whom were politically influential. George says he never knew about the scheme until his wife was arrested, and despite being subjected to intensive investigation and the freezing of his assets, he was never accused of any wrongdoing. But the business, and his reputation, were destroyed. His son left college and joined the army when George no longer could afford to pay the bills for tuition and room and board.

At the time Nancy was taken handcuffed and sobbing to prison, neither her husband nor her son was in any mood to forgive her. George sold every possession he still had and rented a tiny apartment. He recalls subsisting on boxes of noodle dinners, six for a dollar. "I sat at home and drank and thought about killing myself for five months," he remembers. "I hear about people committing suicide, and I always thought it was the stupidest thing. But when you go through something like this, you think about it. It's more than losing what you have. They take away your future."

After a year, George felt able to visit his wife for the first time. Little by little, communication between them improved. He got a job in the field he thought he'd never work in again, and he began to receive regular promotions. Now he's usually smiling when Spriggs comes by to pick him up after his Saturday visit. His son met with his mother once at Jefferson. Ever since, he has refused to go back.

All this Spriggs has learned over several trips with George. He enjoys conversing with his passengers but he adheres to a strict rule: "I never ask them anything," he explains in his expressive Southern drawl. "They'll tell me what they want to, but I never ask."

The sun rises slowly as the van speeds up I-75. On the west side of the freeway, rolling pastures are disconnected from the lavender sky by thick mist. Then long stretches of evenly spaced pines, all the same height, timber company plantings that will be cleared in a few years and the ground replanted. To the east, tall pine trunks rise from fog-blanketed swamps. Like almost every other town in this part of north Florida, the woods of Live Oak are broken by an occasional old clapboard house, a shed, a tiny market or church, until the bright new gas stations and fast-food restaurants loom into view.

The van pulls into the McDonald's parking lot a little after 7:00, and the rumpled, ill-rested women step out into the chilly morning. In the bathroom, Michelle changes from a light cotton dress to a long satiny navy skirt and plaid blouse. Her hair, short and curled under, needs little work. Pearlie's upswept variation on a French roll, with a gold streak running diagonally across the waves framing her forehead, has remained immaculate. But Janet's new style, long strands cascading from the top of her head, isn't working. Michelle tries to help, but the hair won't stay put. Janet rolls up the front tendrils with curlers. "Oh, Lord Jesus," Pearlie sighs to no one but Jesus, and Michelle finally puts on her earrings, big green glass hearts that dangle from blue circles.

This is Michelle's first ride with Prison Connection. She used to drive up from Riviera Beach to see her husband, Charles, with a couple of other women she'd met on visiting days at Belle Glade, where he was imprisoned previously. But when Charles gave her the Prison Connection number he'd seen on an inmates' bulletin board, Michelle decided to try the service. So far, she says, it's less tiring, and it makes sense to let someone else do the driving. A heavyset, strong-willed woman with a direct and decisive manner, Michelle refuses to pity either herself or her husband for the loss and loneliness that have come as a result of his conviction on drug charges. He has served four years. He has another year and a half to go.

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.

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.

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."

Pearlie switches her tape player back on, resumes the rhythmic swaying of her head. "Lord, you got the power in your hands," she sings. It's already dark outside, the van speeding southward on the turnpike toward Orlando. When they arrive at the all-night plaza at about 6:30, the place is full of travelers. This time everyone gets out to have dinner. George buys the early edition of the Miami Herald, in which the main story is about the state's tough new measures to make prisoners serve more of their sentences. By 9:45 or 10:00, they'll be pulling into the Waffle House in West Palm Beach for a brief bathroom stop. The last southbound Tri-Rail train leaves at 10:30.

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