Officials confirm nearly 3,000 Florida inmates evacuated because of prison damage

In the face of calls early last week to evacuate Panhandle prisons sitting in the path of Hurricane Michael, the Florida Department of Corrections insisted it was well prepared to weather the storm. On Sunday, following several days of concern and confusion, the agency confirmed that damage caused by the hurricane forced the shuttering of four facilities and evacuations of nearly 3,000 inmates.

The department’s update on Sunday marked the first detailed and official account of Michael’s toll on some Panhandle facilities. Questions remain about others.

About 2,600 inmates were evacuated from Gulf Correctional Institution and Annex in Wewahitchka. An additional 305 inmates were evacuated from parts of Calhoun Correctional Institution in Blountstown. The department said the facilities “sustained significant damage to roofs and security infrastructure” but reiterated that “staff and inmates were not injured during the storm” and “all inmates ... had access to food and drinking water through the duration of the storm.”

Those assurances, particularly of food and water access, were contested throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Michael by the loved ones of incarcerated people who were hearing information to the contrary from their husbands, sons and significant others. Of particular concern was the quality of drinking water at multiple facilities recovering from the storm, where inmates told loved ones they were instructed to drink the tap water “at their own risk.”

On Sunday, family members, spouses and partners were just starting to hear from those who were incarcerated at Gulf Correctional when it sustained a direct hit from the storm. Inmates spoke of being terrified as Michael battered the roofs of the buildings they were housed in.

In its Sunday update, FDC announced that Gulf Correctional, its annex and its forestry camp, as well as the Panama City Work Release Center will be closed “until further damage assessment can be completed.”

The department’s policy is not to announce or confirm evacuations until they are complete, due to security concerns. Rumors of pending evacuations at Gulf began to swirl on Thursday evening. By Friday afternoon, the Florida Times-Union had confirmed that the evacuations were in fact taking place. The agency’s confirmation on Sunday suggests that the process could have spanned days.

Loved ones of those evacuated from Gulf Correctional and its annex updated social media on Sunday to say that inmates were being transferred to facilities in Northwest and Central Florida.

There was one death reported by the Florida Department of Corrections during the storm recovery, but it was unrelated to the hurricane.

FDC Sgt. Derrick Dunn died while on duty early Friday morning due to natural causes. He had served as an officer since 1996 and was deployed to Wakulla Correctional Institution to support staff impacted by the hurricane.

“Please keep his family, and FDC brothers and sisters in your prayers as our agency mourns this devastating loss,” the agency said in a news release.

Ben Conarck: 904-359-4103