Inmates jumped a corrections officer and took over two dorms for several hours during a late-night riot at Franklin Correctional Institution in North Florida on Thursday, the third disturbance at the prison since January.
About 300 inmates stormed two housing dorms, using makeshift tools to drill through a concrete and brick wall and smash bathroom fixtures, TVs, ceiling fans, toilets and sprinkler systems, destroying nearly everything in the dorms, officials with the Florida Department of Corrections and sources confirmed.
It’s not clear how long the uprising lasted, but an FDC spokesman said the incident was eventually brought under control and there were no serious injuries.
For prison officials who have warned state lawmakers that Franklin and other facilities are dangerously understaffed, it is yet another ominous sign that the state prison system could be headed for a catastrophe.
FDC Secretary Julie Jones declined to comment Friday, but she has acknowledged for months that state prisons are at critical staffing levels — and that they’ve narrowly avoided riots in the past.
“The inmates become emboldened when they know you don’t have enough staff and the staff you do have has little or no training. It’s a perfect storm in the making,” said Bill Curtis of Teamsters United, one of two rival unions representing the state’s 22,000 corrections and probation officers.
In January, Florida prison officials quelled a near riot at the prison, in rural Carrabelle, Franklin County, by firing warnings shots and shooting inmates with non-lethal pellets. A second incident occurred on May 12, when officers were forced to fire warning shots to stop a brawl among inmates.
Prisons elsewhere in the state have also been on lockdown after frightening security lapses. In April, a corrections officer was ambushed and stabbed, and several other officers injured, during a fight at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City.
Publicly, FDC officials admitted that Thursday’s melee was far more serious than the others at Franklin, but they characterized what happened to the officer who was attacked as a “security-related injury involving a dynamic mixture of inmates.” They did not release details of what precipitated the siege or finally brought it to an end.
Three teams of tactical officers specially trained to handle riots responded to the crisis, using non-lethal bullets and tear gas. At one point during the incident, an inmate inside one of the dorms had a seizure and the inmates allowed him to leave to get medical treatment, an FDC source said.
“Utilizing a trained tactical response, department staff quickly and effectively quelled the situation,” Alberto Moscoso, FDC spokesman, said in a statement. “Due in no small part to the judgment and professionalism of the responding officers, there were no serious injuries to either inmates or employees.”
About 300 inmates in the damaged Dorms E and F were bused to other facilities early Friday after the disturbance, which began at about 11 p.m. Thursday, Moscoso confirmed. The prison, which has the capacity to house more than 1,200 inmates, was then placed on lockdown as a precaution, he said.
For the past year, three outside audits of the Department of Corrections have said dangerous staffing levels leave the agency vulnerable to inmate disruptions at its 49 prisons. The agency loses about one-third of its corrections officers each year, according to the reports, and those who replace them are often young and inexperienced, with little or no training.
Officers are forced to work endless hours of overtime to cover shifts. At times, there is one officer responsible for hundreds of inmates, and some officers are assigned on paper to cover multiple posts simultaneously — a practice known as “ghosting.”
Jones took over in January 2015 amid reports of record incidents of inmates who were abused, tortured and killed as a result of excessive force by officers. Earlier this year, she asked legislators for $36 million to fund 734 new officer positions that she called “imperative” to improve staffing conditions and the “temperature” of facilities by reducing shifts from 12 to eight hours, to allay overtime and fatigue.
But legislators rejected Jones’ request and instead provided funding for only 215 new officers.
“These types of instances are symptoms of an underlying problem within the Department of Corrections that the Legislature is just beginning to understand,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who called for one of the outside audits in 2015. “The short term may be more money, but the solution over the long term is more challenging.”
He echoed the findings of the reports: “We can recruit officers, but retention is abysmal. We’re losing our prison guards every year and often our facilities are guarded by junior, unseasoned corrections officers,’’ he said. “With a 4.7 percent unemployment rate, when you’re paying $32,000 a year, these people have real options.”
Les Cantrell, head of Teamsters 2011, which also represents officers, said the inmates often “have more experience inside the fence than some of our officers have.’’
Security is further strained when inmates are kept idle for most of the day. Franklin offers just one vocational program — a plumbing class.
Cantrell said it doesn’t matter whether lawmakers approve 200 or 2,000 positions — because the agency has been unable to fill those positions or keep those that they do fill.
County law enforcement offices pay more in salary, and the prison system can’t compete. State corrections officers haven’t had raises in years, and the raise they did get five years ago was offset by contributions that they’ve had to make to their retirement, he said.
“The Legislature needs to understand that they need to increase our pay so more officers come, more officers stay and we have more boots on the ground to make the prisons safe,” Cantrell said.
Moscoso would not comment on the staffing levels at Franklin but acknowledged: “Staffing is an issue across all our institutions across the state right now.’’
The agency will conduct an investigation of the incident to determine and evaluate the response, he said.
Mary Ellen Klas: email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas