Since Denise Rock started the criminal justice reform group Florida Cares in August 2017, the organization has impacted reform and activism around the issue in the state in a remarkable way. Yet it got its start in the most ordinary of places.
“Florida Cares came out of meeting people in the parking lots of prisons,” Denise says now, remembering how she would go to Martin Correctional Institution to visit someone she cared about who recently had become incarcerated for the first time. “When you’re waiting to visit someone, or just coming out, you make small talk with people, exchange phone numbers. Some other women and I realized we had a knack for being able to understand the rules, answering questions, getting information.” At the time, Denise was working as an investigator and paralegal, and found that her background and job skills served her well in helping others, especially when she heard that the Florida Department of Corrections wanted to cut visitation hours.
“They gave almost no notice. I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way they can do something like that without following some kind of procedure.’ So many people care about their visits. It’s that one thing they are willing to fight tooth and nail over, determined not to lose any more time with their incarcerated loved one than they already have.
“And then I went on the Internet and found that there was a way to object to that kind of thing. I wrote it up, and then I told 30 people and started circulating it. Then those 30 people told someone else, and before we knew it, I think there were 590 letters that were sent to the DOC objecting to the proposed rule change. Plus a petition with 10,000 signatures. And it worked! People were shocked that we had stood up to the DOC and won.”
Making something meaningful out of very little, in difficult circumstances, is nothing new to Denise. Soon after she was born to her teenaged mother, her parents divorced. She and her mother moved around quite a bit, struggling to survive. “My mom would look at an old, ripped-up chair, and I would look at our bedsheets and I would say, ‘Well, we can recover this chair with these sheets.’”
Years later, that creativity and determination would serve her well. “When my first child was born, I lived in government housing and I was on food stamps and welfare. I managed to get off of that on my own, and I raised my child without any child support. I bought my own house, started my own business, and my business earns more than a million dollars a year. I’m really proud of that.”
Fast forward to the last few years. Her two children, now grown, have kids of their own. Denise helps take care of them, but most of her energy goes to Florida Cares, which is now a partner of FAMM. Since the group began with only three women with the idea to help people who were incarcerated and their families, it has grown to more than 3,000 active directly impacted Floridians. The work they have accomplished is astounding: Florida Cares is behind rallies, weekly outreach calls, email blasts to Florida prisoners, Lobby Days at the state capitol, advocacy training, holiday toy drives, and more.
Even though the group has grown so much, Denise still brings the personal touch. She is constantly on the phone, answering questions from members. Her email in-box is packed – and she reads them all. And if she doesn’t know the answer to a question, she finds it. Her ability to connect and mobilize people into action – to channel their pain into advocacy – means that FAMM has been able to work in Florida in an expanded way.
Partnering with FAMM, Denise has been able to create an especially creative advocacy tool: the Beat the Heat Challenge. The challenge involves a storage pod that has been outfitted to look exactly like a prison cell, with bunk, toilet, hanging light bulb, and most importantly, zero air conditioning – precisely as it is for state prisoners throughout one of the hottest states in the country. Lawmakers and the general public are invited in to see just how hot it gets. Many of them can barely stand it for a few minutes.
“What it does is it raises awareness to the entire incarceration effect. Yes, the heat is horrible, but when the person is inside of that cell, it’s not just the heat that I see them being affected by. They are profoundly affected by the small space. The toilet being so close to where you put your head to sleep every night. It is an extremely useful tool for sharing with the world what prison is really like.”
Always thinking outside of the box and into the future, Denise is pondering restorative justice approaches, investing in corrections officers – “Let’s arm officers with human interaction skills and de-escalation techniques, not just pepper spray and handcuffs” – and shifting funds into programs and education, among many other things. “This system is a disaster. It was built on punishment, not rehabilitation. The time is now for legislators to fix it, to get in there and do the kind of work that really matters, not just small, ineffective changes to placate us.”
That little girl who once covered a ripped chair with sheets is now changing the landscape of reform in Florida. The partnership between FAMM and Florida, especially, has been a win-win. “I love that FAMM encourages creativity and helps propel the movement forward. The more I do, the more I see that there is to do. And I really like being able to run with an idea and make change happen. I have a zillion more ideas!”
Are you hungry for reform and enthusiastic to make it happen, like Denise? Then join FAMM and find out how!