Evacuations, confusion and concern as prisons recover from hurricane
Phone lines and email services were down at several state prisons, leaving many unable to get answers
By Ben Conarck
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Friday has been just like Thursday so far, with the loved ones of incarcerated people and corrections officers growing increasingly concerned about a lack of information about conditions at several Florida Panhandle prisons more than 48 hours after Hurricane Michael made landfall there.
The Florida Department of Corrections has repeatedly assured the public that institutions are secure, everyone is accounted for, food and water is available, and there are no reported injuries to inmates or staff. However, the department acknowledged damage at Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka as well as other facilities officials wouldn't name. The agency didn't provide details. Also, phone lines and email services were down at several state prisons, leaving many unable to get answers.
Yolanda Claudio has not heard a word from her son, who is among some 1,500 inmates at Gulf Correctional, in the two days after the prison was ripped apart Wednesday by one of the strongest hurricanes to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Gulf Correctional Annex, which was also damaged, holds just under 1,400 people.
"I'm a single parent. He is my only child," said Yolando Claudio. "I haven't been able to sleep for two days."
Hurricane Michael dealt a devastating blow to a state prison system already crippled by staff shortages and rampant gang violence, not to mention maintenance needs and states of disrepair at multiple prisons. Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones just this year asked the Florida Legislature asked for millions of dollars in additional funding to cover repairs, additional staff and address other issues.
Gulf Correctional reportedly suffered damage to its fencing, and the roofs of several dorms, according to multiple sources.
Claudio, of Brandon, said she has been frantic because of rumors of horrible conditions spread by other family members.
Renee Walston, of Jacksonville, expressed similar concerns about the rumors on social media. She said even as the department has provided generic updates, the comments on the social media posts are more worrying than the assurances made by the agency.
"You don't know how true that is," Walston said of the agency's blanket responses. "You don't know what to believe. I just want to know he's safe."
The Times-Union and the Miami Herald were able to confirm that some inmates are being moved from the damaged Gulf Correctional to at least one other facility. The newspapers are not naming the receiving facility due to concerns about the security of the inmate transfers.
It's unclear how many inmates are being evacuated. Inmate locations are updated on the Department of Corrections website every 24 hours.
Caravans of supplies – miles long -- are being trucked to Gulf Correctional, where the hurricane ripped off metal roofs to several dorms and destroyed part of the prison's perimeter fence, several sources said.
"I am sure they have armed personnel out by the fence and they are putting up a temporary fence,'' said Ron McAndrew, a private prison consultant and former FDC warden. McAndrew said he spoke with several reliable sources at the prison who told him that the facility has been secured, and that some inmates are being moved out to other facilities.
The staff is working with a skeleton crew since most of the officers were affected by the storm. Many people who work at the prison live in some of the hardest hit areas.
"They are pretty much in a state of shock,'' McAndrew said of the staff.
FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said additional officers are being transported up to the Panhandle to support Gulf's staff.
"We've got everyone rushing to that area to give them more support -- food trucks, water truck deliveries around the clock -- so they know those resources are getting there,'' McAndrew said.
He said inmates are being fed sandwiches and do have fresh water.
The extent of the damage is not yet known. Glady said maintenance crews were en route Friday to make repairs.
While the metal portion of the roofs were damaged, McAndrew said the plywood underneath appears to be intact, his sources said.
The chaotic environment is not contained to inmates' families and partners. Loved ones of correctional officers also called the Times-Union and the Herald desperate for updates.
Vanessa Horton said her 20-year-old son just started as an officer trainee at Gulf Correctional and has yet to hear from him since he was told he had to work the storm.
Horton, who was still nervous on Friday, said that the parents and significant others of inmates, officers, and staff members were all in the same boat.
"What would make me feel better is the same thing that would make them feel better," Horton said, "To hear from their loved ones."