Tensions among gang members at a state prison in Florida’s Panhandle exploded Wednesday morning, as the inmates took over several dorms, injuring seven correctional officers, officials said.
The uprising happened about 8 a.m. at Gulf Correctional Institution and spread across several dorms before it was brought under control about a half-hour later, according to Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
Glady said the victims were transported to local hospitals with non-life threatening injuries. The prison, 25 miles east of Panama City, was placed on lockdown.
The agency would not say what the injuries were, how the violence started or whether there was any damage. However, sources said the melee involved more than 20 inmates, many of them members of gangs.
There were other reports that the warden approved the use of lethal force had the inmates breached the officers’ station.
Sources said the inmates belonged to one of several gangs at Gulf CI: the Bloods, Auburn Park, West Side and Chico Boy. Some of them were armed with sledgehammers.
The proliferation of gangs in Florida prisons has caused an uptick in violence over the past several years. Corrections officers have long complained about short staffing and working long hours, making it difficult to properly secure prisons. As a result, prisoners who are vulnerable often turn to gangs for protection from violent inmates.
“This has been building, and the bomb keeps getting bigger and bigger and more explosive for these men and women we ask to guard these prisons,’’ said John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents state corrections officers.
There were unconfirmed reports that at least six rapid response teams responded to the prison, as well as the local sheriff’s department.
Prison gangs are highly predatory groups involved in drug activity, extortion and violence. In Florida prisons, they have a history of using corrupt prison guards to smuggle in contraband, including weapons. The corrections officers profit from trafficking cellphones and cigarettes, which cost up to $100 a pack in prison.
There have been several inmate revolts — which the agency refers to as “disturbances” — in state prisons over the past two years.
Julie Jones, secretary for the department, has said gang violence is at an all-time high, largely as a result of having inexperienced — and not enough — corrections officers.
The lack of staff also costs the state millions of dollars in overtime.
The state Legislature recently approved a boost in officers’ salaries, and new recruits get signing bonuses. Still, the officers make less than their police agency counterparts — and many of them leave for better paying jobs.
Here’s the statement from the agency:
“Early Wednesday morning, there was a major disturbance involving several inmates housed in multiple dorms at Gulf Correctional Institution Annex. Due to the quick and effective response of institutional staff and special response teams, the situation has been resolved. One inmate and six staff members were injured during the disturbance. Injured individuals are receiving medical treatment for non-life-threatening injuries. The facility remains on lockdown. The Department is placing involved inmates in confinement pending disciplinary review.”
The number of injured staffers was later updated to seven.