Hurricane Michael strikes Florida Panhandle
About 24 hours after Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, there was still little known about the extent of the damage to several prisons there. But the early reports weren’t good.
Phone lines and cell phone towers were down, leaving scores of people with loved ones at Panhandle facilities unable to make contact. The Florida Department of Corrections, meanwhile, told the Florida Times-Union it would provide a facility-by-facility damage assessment by the end of the day on Thursday.
The Times-Union on Thursday contacted several people with loved ones at Gulf Correctional Institution and its Annex in Wewahitchka, which was hit hard by the storm. The main unit opened in 1992 and has a capacity to house more than 1,500 people. The annex opened in 1999 and has a capacity of just under 1,400 people.
Jennifer Oneal, whose boyfriend is at the main unit, said she spoke to him in the early afternoon on Wednesday, just as the lights at the facility were flickering on and off. The call ended abruptly, Oneal said, presumably because the power at the facility had failed. As of Thursday afternoon, phone lines and online outage maps were still down for Gulf Coast Electric, which supplies power in the Wewahitchka area.
Oneal said before the call cut out, her boyfriend had told her there was roof damage at his dorm and windows had not been boarded up prior to the storm hitting. She added that her boyfriend could also see the dorm across from his had roof damage and that there was water coming from the sprinkler systems.
A woman whose son is being housed at the main unit was getting text messages from him on Thursday afternoon, after the storm hit. The Times-Union verified their identities but is not naming either of them due to concerns about retaliation by prison officials for communicating through unofficial channels.
The woman’s son reported a lack of power and access to food, as well as concerns about drinking water. The Times-Union asked the Florida Department of Corrections to verify those conditions but had not yet heard back.
“This place is condemned,” the inmate texted his mother. “No food. No power.” The inmate said he believed the facility would need to be evacuated.
The latest update from FDC came on Thursday afternoon and did not address any specific facilities. Michelle Glady, the communications director, said she was still working on getting damage assessments.
“I have confirmed food and water is at the facilities and more is arriving for institutions that have been impacted by the storm,” Glady said.
Downed communications lines and spotty cell phone towers plagued the Panhandle, affecting several prisons and the regional office. That left an information vacuum, and those with loved ones inside Panhandle prisons were unable to call and check in on the conditions.
Unconfirmed reports of the conditions at Gulf CI swirled on Wednesday and throughout the day on Thursday. The Times-Union first heard about a potential roof collapse on Wednesday afternoon. The Department of Corrections would say only that the institution “sustained damage” and stressed that there were no injuries.
Many with loved ones in these facilities had advocated for the prisons to be evacuated before the storm hit. After word of the damage came in, those same people expressed anger about what wasn’t done. The Times-Union asked the department if it has the capacity to evacuate multiple prisons in the Panhandle to other institutions, but had not yet received a response to that inquiry.
The Times-Union spoke to several people who said their loved ones were transferred from Hardee Correctional Institution east of Bradenton on Friday to Gulf CI on the Panhandle, five days before the storm hit. The Department of Corrections had yet to confirm the transfer of those inmates.
On Thursday, the Times-Union heard from an inmate at Apalachee Correctional Institution East Unit, in the Panhandle. He relayed information about the conditions there on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation for speaking through unofficial channels.
The inmate said the facility sustained damage but the dorm areas remained in decent shape. He said the prison was being powered by generators and that inmates were not allowed to leave their dorms. They were getting bagged lunches of peanut butter and ham sandwiches, he added.
“They don’t give us [bottled] water,” he said. “They gave us [sandwiches and] an apple. That’s what we’re getting.”
Several people with loved ones at Gulf CI said that inmates were not allowed to use the phones there on Monday but were able to use them on Tuesday. At that point, they said, there were long waits to use the phones due to newly transferred inmates, and it was hard to get through.
For most people with loved ones at Gulf, they are left waiting for information, and the uncertainty can be excruciating.
“My fiance told me [Tuesday] night they were being moved to a different building and put on lockdown in two-man cells,” said Kirsten Wall, whose fiance was at Gulf CI Annex. “That’s the last I heard from him.”
Ben Conarck: 904-359-4103