Inmate’s death follows officer’s stabbing at troubled Florida prison

Jason Rodriguez, inmate found dead in protective custody cell at Columbia Correctional Institution.
Jason Rodriguez, inmate found dead in protective custody cell at Columbia Correctional Institution. Florida Department of Corrections

One day after an officer was stabbed during a melee at Columbia Correctional Institution, an inmate who suffered from mental illness was found dead in a protective custody cell at the facility’s annex Tuesday morning, the Miami Herald has learned.

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The prison, in Lake City, remains on lockdown following Monday’s stabbing. The officer, Shane Biancaniello, 41, suffered superficial stab wounds and a broken jaw. He was released from Shands Hospital in Jacksonville on Monday evening.

On Tuesday morning, well after 7 a.m. checks, inmate Jason Rodriguez, 46, was found unresponsive. He was in confinement because his mother had called the prison within the last week, worried that her son’s life had been threatened. The death is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and an autopsy is scheduled.

Tensions at the prison continue to mount, as officers are forced to work 16-hour shifts — or face disciplinary action if they refuse, several sources at the prison told the Herald.

Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was serving 30 years in prison for the shooting of a co-worker during a rampage in Orlando in November 2009. During his trial, his public defender pursued an insanity defense, and experts testified that Rodriguez frequently heard voices that would degrade, humiliate and threaten to kill him.

Sources at the prison said that Rodriguez would tell his mother about the delusions, and she would call the prison. He was recently placed in protective custody, where he would not have access to medication or weapons.

There was another inmate in his cell, but it’s not clear whether officers made their designated rounds in a timely manner Tuesday.

“He told me on the phone last week that he was being threatened, that someone had threatened to kill him,’’ said Rodriguez’ mother, Anna Rodriguez. She said despite being sick, her son wasn’t receiving adequate treatment for his illness.

“He was very sorry about what happened. He couldn’t understand what happened. He was really sick and psychotic at that time. But that was dying down because he was hanging onto his faith in God, and going to chapel every day,’’ she said.

The trouble at Columbia comes as many prisons are at critical staffing levels, with officers working long hours of overtime to cover shifts. Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has acknowledged for months that state prisons are dangerously understaffed — and that they’ve narrowly avoided inmate riots, including one in January at Franklin Correctional.

Officers at Columbia say the staff shortages have been a strain — so much so that corrections officers are afraid they will be written up or lose their jobs if they refuse to work overtime to even go to their children’s baseball games.

The stabbing happened at 10:30 a.m. Monday as officers were escorting a group of inmates to the afternoon feeding, according to a memo about the incident obtained by the Herald.

Biancaniello was jumped by an inmate, Joseph Simms, who was armed with a shank-type weapon, the FDC memo said. Simms, 23, stabbed the officer several times in the head and neck, sources said.

As the officers tried unsuccessfully to subdue Simms, with force and with chemicals, several other inmates jumped into the fray, sources said. It did not escalate further, and the officers eventually were able to handcuff Simms.

Four years ago, Sgt. Ruben Thomas was stabbed in the neck with a handmade weapon and died at the facility. After Monday's attack, Thomas' mother and sister called for changes at the facility.

“It brought a rush of emotions back to me from everything that our family has went through,” Paula Thomas told News 4 in Jacksonville. “All I could think is 'not again.' And we kind of feel like it’s going to continue to happen until there are more corrections officers hired.”

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