Karen Smith says the Franklin Correctional Institute (FCI) is a toxic facility environmentally and socially.
She said prisoners emerge from incarceration there less prepared to enter society than before they were jailed and that the concentration of human beings in a small area leads to environmental degradation.
Smith is an activist for the organization Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a 100-year old labor organization founded in Chicago. She organized a protest at the Franklin Correctional Institution on Saturday afternoon to raise awareness of the “Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March” held that day in Washington D.C.
The organizer said about two dozen protesters visited the front gate of FCI between 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday. She said a dozen people were on site most of the time.
Smith, who lives in Gainesville, said she chose FCI as the site for the IWW demonstration, “because I hear such bad things about it.”
Smith called FCI typical of Region 1 Florida prisons in the Panhandle which she described as “rife with abuse.” She said insiders tell her that inmates at FCI receive inadequate food and medical care. She said staff at Panhandle correctional facilities are part of a “good old boy” network that inhibits transparency and actively covers up abuse of prisoners.
She said her opinions are largely based on information from prisoners. “I am only reflecting the information I receive,” she said.
She refers to herself as a prison abolitionist and said she corresponds with about 600 prisoners of the 100,000 people incarcerated statewide. She said she produces a small magazine for distribution to Florida prisoners which includes articles by inmates, but the Florida Department of Corrections practices strict censorship.
She said eight of her contacts were formerly housed in Franklin County but Smith said all eight were transferred elsewhere within the last two weeks. She said it will take several weeks to relocate them and that, for the two weeks following a transfer, it is impossible to locate a prisoner.
Like all Florida state prisons FCI was locked down on August 16 in anticipation of the Washington march. The lockdown was ended Monday. Visitation was cancelled at all institutions Saturday and Sunday after officials received an unspecified threat of violence.
During the lockdown guards searched cells, seizing a number of weapons and other contraband in the process.
The stated goals of the national march were to end forced labor for incarcerated individuals, which they consider a form of slavery, and to induce Congress to hold hearings on mass incarceration in the United States.
A number of international human rights organizations including Amnesty International (AI) have expressed concern about conditions in US prisons and the large number in inmates.
According to AI, “The USA stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement, defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as "the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day".
World Prison Brief, published since 2000 by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research found that in 2016, the United States had the second highest rate of incarceration per capita worldwide, 693 per 100,000, exceeded only by the tiny island nation of Seychelles which has a rate of 799 per 100,000, due to the presence of a UN-funded prison.
There are currently more than 2 million people in US prisons and jails. “If they keep incarcerating people at the current rate, we’ll all have a loved one inside,” Smith said.
She said IWW staged the Franklin County protest to, “let prisoners in Florida know we’re here.”
Smith has a personal interest in prison reform. She said that her daughter’s father served 12 years in prison and suffered psychological damage that eventually led him to take his own life.
Smith said she believes correctional officers are also losers in the current prison system, because of the chronic understaffing. “I believe everyone who walks through the gate is in danger,” she said.