Miami-Dade County

Florida prisons — all of them — on lockdown

The entrance to the Wakulla Correctional Institution
The entrance to the Wakulla Correctional Institution emichot@miamiherald.com

All of Florida’s 97,000 state prison inmates are on lockdown — and will remain confined to their dorms at least through the weekend — in response to unspecified threats about potential rioting, officials from the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Thursday.

All able-bodied officers, including new recruits, were ordered to report to work starting Thursday. Graduations have been postponed this weekend so that new officers can assist with staffing and help conduct searches for weapons and other contraband, FDC said. Probation officers, too, have been brought in.

Weekend visitations have been canceled at all 50 major institutions, including private prisons, youthful offender facilities, as well as annexes, work camps and re-entry centers. Juvenile facilities have not been affected.

It appears to be the first time in memory that the Florida prison system has been locked down for an indefinite period of time.

The agency has not said specifically what led to the lockdown, other than that the department had received “credible intelligence’’ that “small groups’’ of inmates were planning to cause disturbances.

“Everything we are doing is based on the safety of the institutions, the staff and the inmates,’’ said Michelle Glady, FDC spokeswoman.

“These steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution,’’ she said.

Ron McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden who now works as a consultant, said such drastic steps are rare.

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Ron McAndrew

“When it’s statewide — that is really serious business. They must have a verified threat of some kind to take that step,’’ he said.

FDC’s intelligence division received information that the threats may be timed to coincide with the “Millions for Prisoners’ Human Rights” rally on Saturday in Washington. The loosely organized event is being billed on social media as a way to raise awareness about mass incarceration and human rights violations in prisons across the country.

Glady initially said on Wednesday that no “basic privileges’’ would be affected, other than visitation. However, on Thursday, the Miami Herald learned that state prisons were on a system-wide lockdown — and that all educational, vocational, rehabilitation, ministry and recreation programs had been scrubbed until further notice. Inmates are confined to their dorms, except at mealtime, FDC officials finally confirmed Thursday.

Violence among inmates — especially those in gangs — is at an all-time high in Florida prisons. Corrections officers have been stabbed and beaten, and prisoners have been killed in several clashes over the past several months.

When it’s statewide — that is really serious business. They must have a verified threat of some kind to take that step.

Ron McAndrew, consultant and former warden

Staffing is stretched so thin that limits had already been placed on educational and vocational programming at many prisons.

Prison experts point out that recreation, family visits and training programs are often the first to go when staffing levels are low, and the combination of overworked correctional officers and idle inmates often leads to security breaches.

Riots have happened in several states over the past few months. In February, inmates stormed a Delaware prison, killing an officer and seriously injuring several others during a 20-hour siege. A report issued after the riot said the prison housed too many gang members together, there were not enough officers and the cancellation of privileges, like family visits and programs, had left too many frustrated inmates with time on their hands.

Florida inmates, their families and civil rights groups have long protested the state’s poor 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.

Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.

The Herald and other media have documented systemic abuse of inmates as well as suspicious deaths, medical neglect and the mistreatment of prisoners with mental and physical disabilities.

The state has been forced to make some reforms as a result of costly civil lawsuits.

“Florida needs to focus on why as a response it needs to lock down its prisons — too many prisoners serving far too long sentences, too few programs and inadequate staff, and too many who are mentally disabled,’’ said Randall Berg, executive director and attorney at the Florida Justice Institute, which has successfully sued the agency for human rights abuses.

“Until Florida gets smart, we will continue to waste tax dollars on corrections which are needed elsewhere,” he said.

Florida is the nation’s third-largest prison system, behind California and Texas. FDC has 148 facilities, a budget of $2.4 billion, and more staff than any other state agency.

Everything we are doing is based on the safety of the institutions, the staff and the inmates.

Michelle Glady, FDC spokeswoman

The department spends about $20 million a year in overtime.

To retain and recruit more officers, state lawmakers recently approved the first raise for corrections officers in a decade, and the agency is offering signing bonuses for new officers at institutions with serious staff shortages.

Even with the raises, however, the base pay for a state corrections will be $33,500 a year. McAndrew said the combination of low pay and high turnover has led to a perfect storm of opportunity for inmates.

“The inmates are joining gangs to protect themselves because there is not enough staff to supervise them. A corrections officer in Florida is working so much overtime that they are physically exhausted. Some of them just give up and don’t care what the inmates are doing,’’ he said.

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 been put on lockdown. She said most prisoners are allowed to make phone calls — and all of them are permitted to shower and go to chow hall. Only Franklin Correctional Institution, is on full lockdown, where inmates are not receiving any privileges. She said that’s because of a more serious security concern, which she would not detail.

McAndrew said the lockdown isn’t going to prevent tension — and may exacerbate it. Florida prisons do not have air-conditioning, he pointed out.

“The summer, it gets so damn hot,’’ he said. “Imagine if you had to sleep in your bedroom or stay in your home, locked in without any air-conditioning — try it for one night. You would not be able to sleep.’’

A video from inside Dade Correctional Institution, which was released by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office on March 17, 2017, shows the moment prison guards respond to a medical emergency regarding inmate Darren Rainey.

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