Officials: Nearly 3,000 Fla. inmates evacuated because of prison damages
The department said the facilities "sustained significant damage to roofs and security infrastructure" but reiterated that "staff and inmates were not injured during the storm"
By Ben Conarck
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the face of calls early last week to evacuate Panhandle prisons sitting in the path of Hurricane Michael, the Florida Department of Corrections insisted it was well prepared to weather the storm. On Sunday, following several days of concern and confusion, the agency confirmed that damage caused by the hurricane forced the shuttering of four facilities and evacuations of nearly 3,000 inmates.
The department's update on Sunday marked the first detailed and official account of Michael's toll on some Panhandle facilities. Questions remain about others.
Some 2,600 inmates were evacuated from Gulf Correctional Institution and Annex in Wewahitchka. An additional 305 inmates were evacuated from parts of Calhoun Correctional Institution in Blountstown. The department said the facilities "sustained significant damage to roofs and security infrastructure" but reiterated that "staff and inmates were not injured during the storm" and "all inmates ... had access to food and drinking water through the duration of the storm."
Those assurances, particularly of food and water access, were contested throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Michael by the loved ones of incarcerated people who were hearing information to the contrary from their husbands, sons and significant others. Of particular concern was the quality of drinking water at multiple facilities recovering from the storm, where inmates told loved ones they were instructed to drink the tap water "at their own risk."
As the Department of Corrections continued to post to social media, comments from its followers devolved the forum meant to provide information into a sparring ground between concerned loved ones of incarcerated people and accounts appearing to belong to FDC staff and their relatives.
Comments posted by an account using the name Steve Wentz mocked family members for worrying about food, cast all inmates as liars, and taunted individuals who took offense to his remarks.
"Not sure who your loved one is in prison or how much he's being forsed (sic) to PAY RENT to other prisoners," the account posted. "Glad I don't have a clue!"
An FDC roster from June showed a lieutenant at Madison Correctional Institution named Steven Wentz. Other accounts with names on the roster were encouraging Wentz's remarks. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the postings.
Elsewhere on social media, family members, wives and partners were just starting to hear from those who were incarcerated at Gulf Correctional when it sustained a direct hit from the storm. Inmates spoke of being terrified as Michael battered the roofs of the buildings they were housed in.
In its Sunday update, FDC announced that Gulf Correctional, Annex and Forestry Camp, as well as the Panama City Work Release Center will be closed "until further damage assessment can be completed."
The department's policy is not to announce or confirm evacuations until they are complete, due to security concerns. Rumors of pending evacuations at Gulf began to swirl on Thursday evening. By Friday afternoon, the Times-Union had confirmed that the evacuations were in fact taking place. The agency's confirmation on Sunday suggests that the process could have spanned days.
Loved ones of those evacuated from Gulf Correctional and Annex updated social media on Sunday to say that inmates were being transferred to facilities in Northwest and Central Florida.
There was one death reported by the Florida Department of Corrections during the storm recovery, but it was unrelated to the hurricane.
FDC Sgt. Derrick Dunn died while on duty early Friday morning due to natural causes. He had served as an officer since 1996 and was deployed to Wakulla Correctional Institution to support staff impacted by the hurricane.
"Please keep his family, and FDC brothers and sisters in your prayers as our agency mourns this devastating loss," the agency said in a press release.