It’s been more than six months since Venessa Grullón saw her husband, Gabriel Lugo.
The last day they spent together, they walked through the courtyard in the visiting center at Tomoka Correctional Institution, where Lugo is incarcerated. They held each other and kissed. They promised they’d see each other the next weekend. But when that time came, Grullón had to work.
Then, the state paused prison visits altogether.
“Little did I know when I left that day that I wouldn’t be seeing him for months,” she said.
Family prison visits were suspended in state prisons March 11, a precautionary measure instituted by the Florida Department of Corrections as COVID-19 began spreading rapidly throughout the country.
Like families with loved ones in nursing homes, inmates' families have found themselves cut off from relatives who are trapped in a COVID-19 hotspot. For the incarcerated, visits help maintain connections with loved ones, who are their biggest support network once they are released. They are an important part of inmates' mental health.
‘You don’t know what’s happening.’
While widespread shutdowns due to COVID-19 had not yet reached the United States, there were rumors that prison visits might soon be limited to family members only. So, Grullón and Lugo, who were dating at the time, decided to marry, shortly before the Florida Department of Corrections paused visits altogether. They exchanged vows, and teased each other about being newlyweds.
Lugo returned to prison for violating probation after he served time for vehicular homicide. According to the Department of Corrections, he is scheduled to be released in March of 2022.
When he gets out of prison, Lugo wants to mentor young kids and start his own business, perhaps an events space or a clothing store. His wife said he told her that going without visits has been like spending a long day at work and not being able to see your family afterward.
Whenever Grullón went to see her husband, they would walk around the small courtyard in the visiting area. They would hold hands, talk about his family, talk about what they were going to do when he was released. They would warm food at the microwave together.
They’d make slushies with fruit juice from the canteens. Other times, he would improvise a meal with Ramen noodles and soy sauce.
After the visitation ban, Grullón tried to remain busy and stay positive. She didn’t want her husband to know how worried she was. Even so, she said, Lugo would often pick up on cues in her voice when they talked.
Throughout the spring and summer, Grullón’s thoughts were consumed with concern for Lugo, who is asthmatic and has lost weight. She missed his physical touch and worried that without being able to see him in person, she wouldn’t know if he fell victim to violence or tested positive for COVID-19.
“You don’t know what’s happening,” Grullón said.
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For those in prison, visits are a connection to the outside world, an important part of rehabilitation. One study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found visitation reduced the risk of recidivism, in particular cutting down on probation violations.
“They’re incredibly important for everyone that’s involved,” said Ann Jacobs, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Jacobs serves as the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Opportunity at the college. She said visits remind people in prison that they’re part of a larger network and allow families to see how their loved ones have grown while incarcerated. It’s also important for correctional officers to see inmates as part of a family, she said.
Throughout the summer, COVID-19 coursed through Florida’s prisons and coronavirus-related deaths in facilities followed. Department of Corrections secretary Mark Inch tested positive for the virus, as did more than 15,000 inmates and over 2,800 staff members.
The cost of keeping in touch
For low-income families, the cost of staying in touch with people in prison during the pandemic also quickly adds up.
Friends and family can make video calls, send emails or transfer money to people in prison, using the services of JPay Inc., a Florida-based technology company that provides various services in prisons. Video visits cost $2.95 per 15-minute call. A single JPay stamp, which allows those in prison to send emails, costs $0.39, though stamps can also be bought in bundles. Phone calls to Florida numbers cost $0.04 per minute. Prepaid or collect calls cost inmates $0.14 a minute.
The Department of Corrections has offered one free 15-minute phone call a week for each inmate and has credited free video visits to inmates with JPay accounts. The department also is offering two free JPay stamps a week to inmates.
In January, Vicky Coleman moved to Citrus County to be closer to her son, who is serving a 12-year sentence for robbery without a deadly weapon. Then, the pandemic hit.
On top of the suspension of prison visits, Coleman lost her job and money has been tight. Her old computer doesn’t work for video visits, so she’s borrowed one from a neighbor a few times. She can’t receive collect calls on her old Metro PCS phone, so she has to purchase video visits in 15 minute increments through JPay.
Those calls don’t always work, however. Coleman said she’s had about eight calls refunded since the pandemic started. Some calls have only lasted for part of the allotted 15 minutes.
“You’ll pay for visits that you can’t use,” she said.
Coleman said enabling inmates to call all types of cell phones, instead of having to call collect, could help families stay in touch when they’re not able to visit.
Securus, the parent company of JPay, said it has provided 2.8 million free phone calls to Florida inmates, along with 1.9 million free video visits and 4.3 million free JPay stamps since March 13.
“We are committed to helping families stay connected during this trying time and are proud to provide free and reduced-cost offerings for digital communications services during the pandemic,” spokesperson Jade Trombetta said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
Visits are scheduled to resume Oct. 2, corrections secretary Mike Inch announced in a Sept. 11 video.
“Visitation will look much different than before,” he said in the video. “Numerous safety measures will be in place and interactions with your loved ones will be modified.”
The video did not state the specifics of what visits would look like going forward.
According to the Marshall Project, 10 other states have resumed some form of personal visitation, with varying restrictions.
Grullón said the next time she’s able to see Lugo, she wants to run and jump into his arms. If physical contact isn’t allowed, she said she wants simply to be able to be in his physical presence and stare into his eyes.
“We’re excited to see each other,” Grullón said.