Visitation to all Florida state prisons has been canceled this weekend after evidence surfaced that inmates are planning possible uprisings to coincide with Saturday’s march for prisoners’ human rights in Washington, D.C.
Julie Jones, Secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, announced the move as a precaution, given the agency’s staff shortage and “credible intelligence’’ that groups of inmates at several institutions were planning disturbances.
“There’s no reason to be alarmed. We are just being proactive,’’ said Michelle Glady, a spokeswoman for the department. The agency is taking preemptive steps to secure facilities so that staff and inmates will be secure, she said.
Social media has been advertising a “Millions for Prisoners’ Human Rights” rally on Saturday in Washington, but it’s not clear who is spearheading the movement. Postings advertise the effort as a way to raise awareness about the problem of mass incarceration and human rights violations in prisons across the country.
Florida inmates, their families and civil rights groups have long protested the state’s prison conditions. Over the past year, state Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, has made unannounced visits to Florida prisons and found inmates — especially in the restrictive status known as confinement — without basic necessities, such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, pillows, sheets, shirts and soap.
Violence among inmates — especially those in gangs — is at an all-time high. Corrections officers have been stabbed and beaten, and prisoners have been killed in clashes over the past year.
Staffing is stretched so thin that educational and rehabilitation programs aren’t being offered at many prisons, or they are open only to a small percentage of the state’s 97,000 prisoners.
Florida is the nation’s third-largest prison system, behind California and Texas. FDC has 148 facilities statewide, including 50 major institutions, 17 annexes, seven private facilities, 35 work camps, three re-entry centers, two road prisons, one forestry camp and one boot camp. It has a budget of $2.4 billion, and more staff than any other state agency.
To retain and recruit more officers, state lawmakers recently approved raises and the agency is offering signing bonuses for new officers at institutions with serious staff shortages.
Last year, there were violent outbursts at several Panhandle prisons in advance of a nationwide prison strike scheduled on Sept. 9 — the 45th anniversary of the deadly riot at Attica prison in New York.
There were no serious injuries last year, but three prisons were locked down. One rebellion, at Holmes Correctional Institution, involved more than 400 inmates and caused damage to nearly every dorm.
Glady said some of the prisons in the state’s Panhandle have been gearing up for the possibility of violence, which is one reason they’ve canceled visitation.
She stressed that inmates will not be losing any basic privileges, and will be allowed to call their families and loved ones.