TALLAHASSEE — Warning that inmate health and safety is at risk at the state's largest privately run women's prison, Rep. David Richardson asked Gov. Rick Scott this week to use his emergency powers to replace the top officers and take state control of Gadsden Correctional Facility.
In a letter delivered late Thursday, Richardson asked Scott "to direct the Florida Department of Corrections to install a temporary warden, chief of security, and other resources you deem necessary to restore order and reverse what I can only describe as a loss of institutional control."
Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat and retired forensic auditor, has been on a one-man mission to force change in Florida's troubled prison system. After several surprise inspections in the last month with investigators from the Department of Corrections and the state's Office of Chief Inspector General, he concluded the Gadsden prison faces "significant inmate health and safety concerns" and management has repeatedly retaliated "against inmates for discussing matters with me."
Gadsden Correctional is a medium-security prison that houses 1,544 female inmates and is one of the seven privately facilities in the state. Gadsden is the only Florida prison managed by Management Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah.
McKinley Lewis, spokesman for the governor, said late Friday that Scott is reviewing the letter but had not yet taken any additional action beyond what had begun prior to Richardson's request
Issa Arnita, communicators director for Management Training Corp., told the Times/Herald that the company will "continue to address the ongoing maintenance issues" but is "not aware of any emergency action."
Department of Corrections spokesperson Ashley Cook said the agency is conducting a health and safety inspection at the prison but deferred all questions to the Department of Management Services, which monitors the state's private prisons.
DMS spokesperson Maggie Mickler said the agency has assigned staff to review MTC's efforts in resolving maintenance concerns and is reviewing claims involving inmate welfare.
"While maintenance work is ongoing, conditions at the facility are improving," she said. "DMS will continue to implement changes that enhance the quality of the facility and the well being of the inmates housed in it."
Among the conditions Richardson observed during two surprise visits this month: 55-degree temperatures in inmate cells; no hot water; care being withheld from ill inmates; a tooth extraction without sedation, an inmate who contracted pneumonia after being housed in a unit with no heat or hot water, and reports that guards who impregnated inmates were allowed to remain on the job.
"These people are treated poorly," he told the Times/Herald. "And it all ties back to saving money."
During his March 10 visit with investigators from the Department of Corrections, including Inspector General Lester Fernandez, Richardson said they observed "25 allegations of potential wrongdoing" and encountered two inmates who were threatening to fight each other.
He returned the following week with a laser thermometer borrowed from his brother in the heating and air-conditioning business, and measured the units in Building A at 55 degrees at 12:30 p.m. Confinement cells in another dorm were 64 degrees. Hot water had been turned off in the sinks of yet another dorm.
"While some of the concerns stem from much needed infrastructure repairs, other concerns stem from what appears to be overly aggressive contractor cost-cutting measures that have resulted in conditions that affect inmate health and safety," Richardson wrote in his letter to Scott.
Richardson said he has heard several recurring complaints: meal quality was poor and inadequate, clothing was rationed, and white inmates said that black officers imposed harsher reprimands on them than black inmates.
"I had one teacher say under her breath say to me, 'Please fix this place,' " he said.
Healthcare is also a recurring concern, Richardson said. An inmate who had a recurrence of a highly contagious rash on her face had not been allowed to see a doctor, "so the inmates around her are very fearful they are going to be infected," he said.
Another inmate with a toothache saw the dentist and was told she needs a root canal but, because she is scheduled to be released in four months, "the doctor told her, he can either pull the tooth now or he will give her antibiotics and when she is released she could pay for her own root canal."
He said he told the deputy warden that he insisted she be given a root canal. "I told them, in front of the inmates, that if they are withholding treatment that I would not tolerate it."
In the last year, Richardson's crusade has exposed evidence of officer-on-inmate violence at youthful offender facilities and officers withholding food from inmates. He persuaded the Department of Corrections to close down Lancaster Correctional Institution, a youthful offender prison. He uncovered "horrific" conditions at Columbia Correctional, where toilets wouldn't flush, showers didn't work, a heating system didn't heat and deafening noise coming from an exhaust fan.
He also discovered that Lake City Correctional Institution, a privately operated prison run by CoreCivic of Tennessee, has overcharged the state least $16 million over the past seven years.
At Gadsden Correctional, he found that the 284 women housed in the C-dorm lived for months without hot water or heat, faced flooded bathrooms daily and endured water rations when the septic tanks were jammed with food waste.
After a surprise visit to Gadsden Feb. 9, Richardson returned to the prison with Chad Poppell, the outgoing head of the Department of Management Services which oversees private prisons, on Feb. 16. Poppell, who leaves at the end of the month, subsequently removed the state employee who serves as the on-site monitor, and the state's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, dispatched inspectors to assess the safety and welfare of the inmates. Richardson now wants the warden and chief of security replaced.
"I don't need to wait for an investigation to start jumping up and down," he said. "I have enough evidence and I'm convinced there is enough health and safety concerns that this must be treated as a priority."
Richardson said that when he told the Herald/Times about the harsh and unsafe conditions at Gadsden Correctional in February, he knew he'd get feedback. But he didn't expect the avalanche of emails and phone calls from families — and even former officers employed by the private prison operator.
Richardson shared some of the emails. One mother wrote that her daughter who is incarcerated at Gadsden has experienced "black mold over her bed, flies swarming the chow hall" and "sometimes no drinking water for extended periods of time."
Another mother wrote that since Richardson's visits, "ALL the inmates are now being punished for embarrassing the prison. They no longer have any privileges, no canteen, no microwave, no rec and minimal medical care."
Richardson has filed legislation to shift management from the Department of Management Services to the Florida Department of Corrections but it has faced push back from lobbyists for the private prison industry. The bill has not gotten a hearing.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas