Unrest and violence at Fla. prison hit hard by Hurricane Michael

At Apalachee Correctional's East Unit, Michael toppled fences and security infrastructure, tore roofs off, and led to food shortages


By Ben Conarck
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the wake of Hurricane Michael, the Florida Department of Corrections shuttled inmates out of some of the hardest-hit facilities. Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka became uninhabitable and was completely evacuated, drawing the lion's share of attention from national media outlets.

But about an hour to the north of that facility, tucked along the Georgia border in Jackson County, Apalachee Correctional Institution — one of the state's oldest prisons — was a sitting duck, packed with inmates and at the mercy of a hurricane wreaking havoc on the surrounding area.

At Apalachee Correctional's East Unit, Michael toppled fences and security infrastructure, tore the roofs off ancillary structures such as the library and laundry buildings and punctured the roofs of multiple dorms, which are now covered in tarps. The conditions degraded to the point where officials placed inmates on restricted movement for nearly a week, meaning they ate only cold sandwiches; had no recreation time or access to canteens.

Tensions spiked as a result. In one dorm at the East Unit, they ran so high that a riot nearly broke out. In an unrelated incident, at least one inmate was stabbed.

"Why are we still here?" asked Michael Henderson, an inmate at Apalachee, in an email sent to the Times-Union. "If we can't get to see the medical provider, or have telephone access to a lawyer, why are we still here?"

Prison officials confirmed damage to several structures, security infrastructure, and some accounts of conditions there such as the law library closure, but contended that the facility was still suitable for inmate occupation.

Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said that prison staff are working to address the closure of the library buildings and are in the process of moving the materials into the chapel.

"Immediate legal issues are being addressed by the librarian," she said.

Glady said Gulf Correctional was evacuated because the damage there was "much more extensive."

"ACI is in need of repair, but security is not compromised and the conditions are adequate for inmates to be housed appropriately," she said.

NEAR-RIOT AND STABBING

The near-riot on Oct. 14 was triggered because guards were not providing enough food to inmates in the wake of the storm, according to multiple inmates. A guard entered the dormitory area and was confronted by a large group of inmates, which officials confirmed.

Officials also confirmed that the disturbance was about food and said a special response team dressed in tactical gear responded, quelling the uprising before there were any injuries, use of force, or property damage.

An inmate at the prison who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation said that nearly 70 inmates were placed in plastic cuffs after a guard was attacked or nearly attacked over the lack of food being provided. The Times-Union has requested an incident report. Prison officials have not yet provided one.

Multiple inmates reported the stabbing of at least one inmate, and the Department of Corrections on Thursday confirmed the violence, but did not immediately provide details. Glady, the spokeswoman, said she was still gathering information on the incident, but did confirm that one person was stabbed.

CONDITIONS BEFORE THE STORM

Inmates and their loved ones spoke of poor conditions at Apalachee Correctional, which opened in 1949, even before the storm the hit.

The department has requested additional funding to deal with longstanding maintenance issues, and Glady acknowledged that roofs were in need of repair at several Florida prisons in the Panhandle well before Michael hit.

Some of the complaints prior to the storm included a lack of air circulation, quality of drinking water and a lack of a medical doctor to oversee an inmate population of about 1,500.

Glady said that all exhaust fans are working in the dormitories. On the latter point, Glady said that there have been two advanced registered nurse practitioners on staff and weekly visits from a physician.

"Please note, inmate health care is provided by Centurion," she added.

In the dorms with roofs damaged by Michael, inmates have complained of significant leaking.

The department countered that claim by saying there "has been very limited rainfall since the hurricane."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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