‘Horrific’ conditions at Florida prison languish until legislator shows up and asks why

Earlier this year, Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach visits a K-9 training program at Gadsden Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in North Florida. Inmates are in the background.
Earlier this year, Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach visits a K-9 training program at Gadsden Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in North Florida. Inmates are in the background. Courtesy of David Richardson

When the inmates at Columbia Correctional Institution started shouting at him during one of his surprise prison inspections, Rep. David Richardson knew something was amiss.

“I’ve done this long enough to know adult males never want to talk to an outsider in a group setting,” said the Miami Beach Democrat.

The fear of retaliation and being singled out by gangs wasn’t enough to silence their need to complain about the problems they faced at the prison: toilets that won’t flush, no hot water, a majority of showers that didn’t work, broken heating system, cell windows jammed shut, head-splitting noise from an exhaust fan.

“The conditions were horrific — unfit for human habitation,” Richardson told the Herald/Times.

After a year focused on inspecting youth offender prisons, visiting 60 facilities and interviewing more than 225 inmates, Richardson made his first visit to Columbia Correctional on Nov. 23. As he often does, he randomly went into a couple of buildings in which inmates were arranged in quads with two-men cells.

“I announced who I am and what I’m doing and immediately these adult males started yelling out all the infrastructure problems,” he said.

The aggressive response from the normally cautious inmates surprised him. “It was surreal,” he said.

They told him that for three months they’ve had to endure an exhaust fan that was so loud they couldn’t hear themselves speak, toilets that took constant pushing for 20 minutes to flush, showers that didn’t work and no hot water to make soup or coffee purchased at the canteen.

“People might think this is no big deal — so you can’t make a cup of coffee — but it’s the little things that tend to be causation of unrest and riots,” Richardson said. “It can be the coffee one day, then the showers and they all build up until the next thing you’ve got is a riot situation.”

He moved to a second cell block, a third and a fourth. “Same story,” Richardson said. His inspection of Buildings F and G found problems in every cell block. He spoke to Warden Chris Hodgson, who told him he would move the inmates with the problem toilets.

“I said, of course, but my question is: Why didn’t you move them two weeks ago when the problem started?” he said. “Why did you leave them in a situation like this?”

In the last six months, the Florida Department of Corrections has had to quell at least six “major disturbances” and numerous smaller unrests at prisons, said Michelle Glady, FDC spokesperson.

The most recent riot occurred Nov. 29 at Franklin Correctional Institution, the fourth one this year and the site of the most destructive incident in recent history. In June, about 300 inmates jumped a corrections officer and stormed two housing dorms, destroying nearly everything in the dorms. The incidents are constant reminders that Florida’s prisons are dangerously understaffed and plagued by aging buildings and deteriorating maintenance conditions.

Richardson wrote FDC Secretary Julie Jones asking that the inmates be relocated from the affected dorms until the problems were fixed.

“I know that your department has not been adequately funded by the Legislature for maintenance and repairs of your facilities,” he wrote. “The Legislature must do more to support FDC efforts to bring the facilities up to acceptable standards.”

He asked the agency to identify the facilities in greatest need of repair and make it a priority. He has scheduled a visit back to Columbia, near Lake City, on Thursday to check on progress.

After he complained, FDC accelerated work orders to fix the problems, but the agency admits it just doesn’t have the resources to fix all that is wrong.

Jones told the Herald/Times that a new system is in place to better respond to facilities’ needs as the Legislature allocates more money. But, she admitted, when it comes to the overwhelming maintenance problems they face, some of the problems don’t seem as severe: “Maybe we’re desensitized because we see the larger issues.”

FDC receives dozens of work orders for repairs at its 49-state-run prisons daily, she said. They “triage” the effort by putting a priority on the most serious issues — leaking roofs get a priority over hot water.

But staff shortages are so acute that the agency used to use corrections staff to handle many of the repairs, but that would require them to pull someone from security detail, and they no longer have the staff to do that.

Jones said they are recruiting maintenance staff but, with a starting salary of $27,000, it has been difficult. FDC is in the process of re-classifying the salary structure in an attempt to recruit and retain maintenance staff, she said.

As the governor and Legislature approve more funding for facilities improvements, “we will outsource to contractors and use maintenance staff to do preventive maintenance,” she said.

Richardson said that when he alerts the agency to an issue, “they have immediately responded. But it begs the question: Why is it my one-man band that is effecting change?”

Richardson said he is aware that the “budget is tight, but you’ve got to prioritize a toilet that is not flushing properly.” He wonders if the fan would be roaring for another three months if he hadn’t seen it.

He said Jones, and her assistant secretary Ricky Dixon, “are trying to turn the culture around. They have reassigned the regional directors that they believe are like-minded, but there are still people at the warden level and below who have not gotten the message.”

Months ago when Richardson complained about a situation at Sumter Correctional Institution, he said a deputy warden and the chief of security “gave me a response that was not forthcoming and unprofessional.”

Dixon called them up to Tallahassee, immediately, Richardson said. “He told them, ‘Don’t mess with this guy. He’s not playing a game and we don’t need to be playing games, either.” The agency confirmed the encounter.

Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

Related stories from Miami Herald