How Fla. prisons are preparing for Hurricane Michael

Several prisons in the storm's path are evacuating to safer facilities


By Ben Conarck
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Hurricane Michael took aim at the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, jolting dozens of prisons into storm preparation mode and putting loved ones of incarcerated people on edge.

Tuesday evening, the Department of Corrections announced that it was evacuating seven satellite facilities, community work release centers and work camps. In the Panhandle, Franklin CI Work Camp, Gulf Forestry Camp, Panama City Community Release Center and Pensacola Community Release Center were evacuated. In Tallahassee, Shisa House West and Tallahassee Community Release Center were also evacuated.

The department said those inmates were relocated to larger main units in their parent facilities. Florida prison evacuations are rare, but not unprecedented. More than 5,000 inmates were moved in anticipation of Hurricane Irma just last year.

Several counties that house prisons announced evacuation orders, but no major facilities were in mandatory evacuation zones as of Tuesday evening. If that were to change, or if prison officials deemed conditions unsafe, the department would notify the public on its website and social media only after the evacuation had already been completed, due to security concerns.

Plenty of people will be watching those updates closely. Online communities of prison wives and other support groups buzzed with nervous concern in the lead up to the storm, which is expected to make landfall Wednesday.

"Because of the logistics and using the phone system, often times family members can't immediately call the person in prison," said Michelle Glady, the department's communications director.

The department is closing its central offices in Tallahassee in anticipation of the storm, but Glady said she will be working through the storm to keep people updated.

The vast majority of Florida's prisons in the Panhandle are located inland, away from coastal flooding areas. The housing dorms are built of concrete, and can withstand extreme weather conditions. Nonetheless, flooding from rainfall can pose serious challenges.

Glady said department officials know which facilities are most prone to those issues. A great deal of their time is spent moving resources such as extra food and water from prisons in unaffected parts of the state, so the relatively narrow impact of the storm's current path boded well for logistical planning ahead of the storm.

"We've been prepping for a couple of days since the weekend," Glady said. "Lots of conference calls making sure everyone has what they need."

As officials prepare, however, inmates are often placed on restricted movement to maintain security.

"When a storm is coming, they're not under normal operations," Glady said. "Just like Florida families are preparing for a hurricane, we prepare facilities the same way."

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