Florida Prisons

In latest clash, inmates with shanks brawl at Florida prison; several hurt

Colombia Correctional Institution, where two inmates died of a suspected drug overdose on Saturday.
Colombia Correctional Institution, where two inmates died of a suspected drug overdose on Saturday.

For the second time in less than a week, a disturbance broke out among gang members at a Central Florida prison, this time at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City.

The uprising happened late in the afternoon on Thursday, as inmates armed with shanks clashed, leading to several of them being flown out by medical helicopters, according to sources at the prison. No officers were injured and the brawl was quickly brought under control.

The incident happened six days after a similar clash of gangs at Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, about 40 miles northwest of Lake City. The prison sources said the two disturbances may have been among members of the same gang whose affiliates had been transferred from Hamilton to Columbia after Friday’s upheaval. That could not be confirmed.

About 100 inmates were involved in the disturbance at Hamilton, about 90 minutes northwest of Jacksonville, Corrections officials said on Friday. More than 100 law enforcement officials from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, the Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies were deployed to the compound as a precaution, according to law enforcement officials.

The Florida Department of Corrections — the nation’s third-largest prison system — is grappling with a rise of gang-related violence and an epidemic of deaths involving synthetic marijuana, also known as K2.

The past two years have each been the deadliest in Florida prison history. Total deaths this year are on track to possibly exceed 500 for the first time and with recent budget cuts by the Legislature, the problem is likely to get worse. The agency has a severe shortage of corrections officers who are often forced to work long shifts to keep the prisons at minimum staffing levels.

Michelle Glady, prison system spokeswoman, has denied that the disturbances are riots or even serious. FDC has also disputed whether an ongoing nationwide prison “strike,” organized and promoted by activists, had fueled disobedience in Florida, despite sporadic reports of inmates refusing to eat or carry out work assignments over the past few weeks.

It is difficult to confirm the seriousness of the incidents, since the Florida prison system rarely provides details, often citing security concerns for limiting what information it will provide to the public. The Miami Herald is often notified about the problems by sources at the prisons themselves, or by other local law enforcement agencies or emergency teams that respond to the prisons.

In recent months, the Florida Legislature has announced cutbacks in programs that prison advocates say are essential to rehabilitating inmates and keeping them busy. In May, the prison agency said it would have to cut mental health, substance abuse and re-entry programs to help make up for a $50 million shortfall in its healthcare and pharmaceuticals budgets. The cuts would also include prison chaplains and librarians.

Florida prison conditions are notoriously harsh, especially in summer, because facilities lack air conditioning. At Lowell Correctional Institution, the families of several inmates reported that elderly inmates in particular were falling ill last week because the prison’s thermal cooling system wasn’t operating in several dorms. That women’s prison — the nation’s second largest — has been plagued by unsanitary conditions for years.

Three recent outside audits of the department concluded that 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. Approximately one-third of the agency’s corrections officers are trainees.

Columbia, in particular, has had a number of violent melees among inmates. In 2016, a corrections officer was jumped and stabbed during a brawl. Records at that time showed that across the prison system, radios have become inoperable, security devices — such as cameras and gate locks — broken and keys lost. The Miami Herald found that during the first week of January of that year alone, there were 38 serious security breaches, including a near-riot that was quelled by a prison SWAT team.

Since that time, gang violence has soared, prison officials say. The smuggling of drugs and other contraband has become a cottage industry in Florida prisons, with officers sometimes participating in the trade.

This story will be updated if more information becomes available.