TALLAHASSEE — The four wings of Florida's Tomoka Correctional Institution's E cell block is home to some of the prison's most menacing inmates. They have arrived there because of administrative and disciplinary problems but, in addition to restricting them to confined, two-man cells, the prison also deprives them of society's most basic necessities.
In prison after prison over seven months, Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, reported that toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, pillows, sheets, shirts and soap were often withheld from inmates, especially those in confinement.
Richardson, who has been on a one-man mission to hold the state's troubled prison agency accountable, first observed the toilet paper troubles during a Jan. 19 visit to Baker Correctional Institution in North Florida. After finding dozens of inmates without toilet paper, toothbrushes and other supplies, he asked the prison warden to open the storage unit just feet away from the inmate dorms and deliver hygiene products with him to more than 50 inmates.
"It is behavior that is intended to dehumanize them — treating them like an animal," Richardson said.
The warden at Baker Correctional "was embarrassed," he said, as they walked from cell to cell delivering the tissue paper rolls. He complained to headquarters and "they were apologetic and put out an all-points bulletin that this was wrong."
But the problem continued. During his fourth visit to Tomoka Correctional near Daytona Beach on Saturday, Richardson said the situation was "deplorable."
"E1-219 no toilet paper, no pillow. Out of TP since 8am Friday,'' he wrote in notes he sent to state prison officials last, which he forwarded to the Times/Herald. "E1-218, out of TP since last night . . . E1-210, no pillow case; roaches and rats a big problem in the cell block . . . E1-214, no pillow, no soap."
His notes detailed his findings of 37 cells. He found one inmate so sick he was throwing up and his roommate had been deprived of his inhaler for more than a month. Another inmate had an "open, weeping wound" and for days had no treatment.
He ordered immediate medical treatment for the wounded and nauseous inmates and emailed his notes to the legislative affairs director at the Florida Department of Corrections.
Richardson discovered the agency has a policy of one roll of toilet paper every 10 days — compared to two rolls per week at the private prisons — and, "despite months of complaints to headquarters, they haven't changed their behavior," he said. "We haven't seen improvement."
The inmates find substitutes when their supply of toilet paper runs out, Richardson said. They dampen notebook paper and newspapers. They rip bedsheets and socks and even wash and reuse them. Richardson knows because he has asked them, "How do you handle this situation?"
"The department does not withhold hygiene products from inmates and works continually to ensure all health, safety and hygiene standards are being met within our 149 facilities," Michelle Glady, agency spokeswoman, said in an email.
"The agency welcomes the feedback of Richardson and other legislators as we work together to ensure our facilities are operating transparently, and the safety of our staff and inmates continues to be at the forefront of our mission," she said.
The Department of Corrections contracts with a pest-control service for the rats and roaches, Glady said. And in response to a question about the hygiene habits, she said, "There have been no bacterial outbreaks at Baker or Tomoka."
For the past two years, Richardson has used a provision in state law that allows legislators to inspect Florida's prisons. As the Miami Herald has documented widespread abuse in Florida's prisons, mismanagement of vendor contracts and failing public and private facilities, few other legislators have taken advantage of the law, and change has been slow.
Richardson usually arrives at a prison unannounced, but sometimes word gets out ahead of him. More than once he has arrived to find unopened toothbrushes and toothpaste in prisons' cells, freshly distributed.
He knows inmates lie to him, but he has learned, "if there's a small number of people, it's more likely the people are lying. But when you see a problem widespread like it was a Tomoka — when 20 to 50 people say they are missing something — not all of them are lying and the department knows that."
He also knows that extra toilet paper is considered contraband. "If a disruptive inmate can jam toilet paper in the toilet and cause a flood, it can disrupt a cell block," he said.
But, he warns, "cumulative little things" can lead to explosive problems. "Even if somebody has committed a crime and is sent to state prison, they are still human beings. They are entitled to basic human rights."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.