When Ann Beal Salamone went to visit her son in prison last week, she wore a white T-shirt with “MY VISITS Matter” written in the center of a big red heart.
On the way out, another visiting mother noticed the t-shirt and asked where she could get one too. The two women began to chat and were joined by a corrections officer. “We were all there, I could tell you, thinking about how important it is for our loved ones to have family and friends who care and love them,” she said.
As positive as it was for Salamone, it won’t happen again under a new directive imposed by the Florida Department of Corrections.
An Aug. 5 email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel from FDC Deputy Assistant Secretary for Institutions Hope Gartman alerted employees that messages like the one on Salamone’s t-shirt are “a potential security threat “.
The email singles out T-shirts created by Florida Cares, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people in prison and their loved ones.
Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares, said the t-shirts were made available to the public shortly after the FDC proposed a series of changes to its visiting procedures that could reduce visiting hours to alternate weekends at some institutions and limiting who can visit prisoners, among other changes.
“Our intention in creating them was to inform people,” she said.
Rock has spoken to FDC officials about the matter several times and hopes to continue the conversations to try to create what she calls “an amicable solution for everyone.”
The E-mail from Gartman reads: “Messages displayed on these shirts are considered inflammatory and pose a potential security threat.”
“As the visits are intended to provide a quiet environment in support of an agency priority for family reunification, this is not an appropriate venue to communicate grievances with pending rule changes. For this weekends only, visitors who arrive wearing one of these shirts should be permitted to visit, but with a caveat that future visits will not allow this attire.
According to FDC policy, any item of clothing with an image or language that presents “a potential threat to the safety or order of the establishment” is prohibited. The department does not allow any clothing in the secure area of the correctional facility that “could cause a disturbance or potentially spark a protest.”
Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that advocates for those incarcerated, said the wording of the policy gives the department the ability to ban any clothing he wants.
“It doesn’t even have to present a security threat, just a ‘potential’ threat,”” she says. “I can imagine any t-shirt that meets these criteria as long as the department can come up with a reason.
Examples of prohibited shirts mentioned in the email say “stand up for visits!”, “I like my visits”, and “#visitsmatter”.
An FDC spokesperson did not respond to questions from the Orlando Sentinel about why the shirts pose a safety risk. On Tuesday, Molly Best, assistant director of communications at the FDC, said the ban had not caused a problem or prevented any visits.
“[The T-shirt ban] is no different than they say they are not allowed to wear camouflage. We are not allowed to wear hats. You can’t bring that. You can’t bring that. But the fact that they don’t want to wear them because they don’t want the prison population to know it’s happening. That’s another issue,” Tracy Zuluaga said. “They don’t want a conversation.”
Zuluaga, executive director of the Post-Conviction & Returning Citizens Alliance, said she stopped by Avon Park Correctional Facility every Saturday and Sunday to visit her boyfriend.
“They have the email addresses of every person who is a registered visitor. Why wouldn’t they send [the proposed rules] ours? It is within their capacity. It costs them nothing,” she said. “They want to reduce visits by 50%. Right now we only have about 25% of their year to start with, so now we’re going down to 12%.
Michelle Glady, director of communications for the department, said a rulemaking notice was posted in common areas to inform prisoners.
Common practice in Florida prisons allows for weekly visiting hours between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, as well as holidays. About 4,000 prisoners across the state are visited on an average weekend, according to the department.
If the proposed amended rules are enacted as written, an inmate rotation schedule could be enacted that could limit visiting days to every other weekend at correctional facilities deemed necessary by the department. Family members could potentially lose three of the six three-day weekends that take place each year and those previously incarcerated would lose the ability to visit friends who are not family members in prison.
The proposed rule change also limits when an inmate can remove people from visitation lists to once a year, from twice a year, and defines the 15 visitors allowed to apply as 10 family members and five not family members.
In order to determine whether a standard or modified visiting schedule designation would be put into practice in state prisons, the FDC said a list of criteria must be fully met, including insufficient staffing levels, the number visitor cancellations and the number of disruptions reported. and incidents, among other factors.
Regional and statewide administrators will then review all modified tour considerations.
The possible rules are similar to a controversial proposal in 2018 that was withdrawn after the Joint Administrative Procedure Committee questioned whether the restrictions met the department’s commitment to encourage family reunification. The 2018 proposal also angered relatives and family members of those incarcerated.
In a statement, FDC press secretary Paul Walker said the proposed new rules aim to modernize and define visitation procedures.
“The FDC recognizes the vital importance of visitation while an inmate is incarcerated,” the statement read. “Maintaining community and family ties is also essential for a prisoner to successfully reintegrate into society.
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Visiting hours have been extended at several state-subsidized prisons, he added.
Visitation policies proposed by the FDC are the first step in the rule-making process. The next steps require the JAPC to discuss and determine whether the proposed rules, or parts of them, respect the authority of the agency.
So far, the FDC has only published its initial notice and the JAPC has not met to review the proposed rules.
“They do it about the T-shirts, but it’s not about the T-shirts, it’s about the visits,” said Cherie Smith, a prisoner’s wife.
She went to visit her husband at the Taylor CI in North Florida last weekend, where she said she saw a sign with large letters saying T-shirts are prohibited and visitors would be turned away entrance if they were wearing one.
“It seems to me, whenever loved ones [of prisoners] outside, try to band together to have a voice [FDC] does everything in its power to stop us talking even though they tell us they are doing everything they can to protect our loved ones,” she said. “I’m still going to get my shirt. I just won’t wear it to visit.