A corrections officer was ambushed and stabbed, and several other officers injured, during a melee involving one or more inmates Monday morning at Columbia Correctional Institution, officials said.
The officer, Shane Biancaniello, 41, was airlifted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Columbia, a maximum security facility, is in Lake City in Central Florida.
Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the officer suffered “superficial” wounds and is expected to be released from the hospital by the end of the day. Two other officers suffered minor injuries.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The incident comes as many prisons are at critical staffing levels, with officers working long hours of overtime to cover shifts. 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.
Last month, lawmakers rejected her push for $36 million to fund 734 new officer positions that Jones called “imperative’’ to shore up the state’s shaky prisons. Jones wanted the new officers so that the department could reduce shifts from 12 hours to eight hours, thereby reducing overtime and fatigue.
Despite being ignored by the Legislature, Jones on Friday announced that the Florida Department of Corrections would recruit 4,000 new officers. The new recruits will not be new positions. They will fill 1,300 open positions that the agency has been forced to hold vacant in order to pay for officer overtime, which costs about $25 million a year.
The rest of the new hires will replace officers who leave the agency. The prison system has a 17 percent turnover rate, and has struggled for years to keep experienced officers who often leave for better-paying law enforcement jobs.
The hiring is part of an ongoing effort to clean up the state’s prisons, which have been under scrutiny for the brutal treatment of inmates who have died in record numbers over the past two years. In addition, smuggling of contraband — including illicit drugs, cigarettes and cellphones — by corrupt officers has fueled more violence, particularly among inmate gangs.
Florida’s average salary for a corrections officer is $31,951, and noncertified trainees start at $28,000, which is substantially below salary levels in other large state correctional systems. Florida has not provided a raise to corrections officers in eight years.
Teamsters Local 2011, which represents the agency’s 24,000 correction and probation officers, has not commented publicly on the staffing or safety issues. The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching the head of the union on Monday.
Kimberly Schultz, a spokeswoman for Teamsters United — a splinter union group that has been outspoken on behalf officers — said she and other probation and corrections officers are disappointed lawmakers have failed to do what is critical to make prisons safer: hire more officers and pay them better salaries.
“We are suddenly reminded today just how dangerous our job is and how quickly we can find ourselves in a precarious situation,’’ Schultz said.
The incident at Columbia happened at 10:30 a.m. as officers were escorting a group of inmates to the afternoon feeding, according to a memo about the incident obtained by the Herald. The institution remained on lockdown through the afternoon.
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.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating. A spokeswoman said it was too early to say exactly how many inmates were involved, or what sparked the incident. Moscoso said only one inmate was involved.
“I applaud the quick and decisive actions taken by the correctional officers responding to this incident, who were able to arrive and assist the victim within moments of the assault taking place,’’ Jones said in a statement on the attack.
Simms has not yet been charged. He is serving a six-year sentence for aggravated burglary and scheduled to be released in October.