Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Florida prison guards seize weapons, cellphones as statewide lockdown enters day 3

MIAMI — The unrest continued for a third day at Florida state prisons, as corrections officers — some of them armed — staged a show of force in an attempt to stave off an unspecified threat of violence this weekend.

All 148 prison facilities remained on lockdown Friday, and all able-bodied administrators and officers, including new cadets and probation and parole officers, were ordered to report to the state's dangerously understaffed institutions.

Shakedowns, or searches, of nearly every dorm in every prison were under way, and officers seized a number of weapons and other contraband, such as cellphones, authorities said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida's 97,000 prison inmates confined through the weekend

"It's almost like we're in hurricane mode. All days off have been canceled, it's all hands on deck and they are going corner to corner of every prison to do shakedowns," said John Rivera, president of the state Police Benevolent Association, the union representing corrections, probation and parole officers.

There were some minor "incidents" overnight, at Holmes Correctional Institution and the Reception Medical Center, said Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

"Some inmates are unhappy," Glady said, adding there were no reports of injuries or damage.

The agency said little about the exact nature of the threats that prompted the first statewide lockdown in memory. Veteran corrections officers — some of whom have worked for the department for decades — told the Herald that they've never seen anything like it during their careers.

On a Facebook forum, several officers expressed concerns.

"Please everyone tonight say a little prayer for our FDOC families. We are stretch(ed) out on OT (overtime) and we need all the prayer's(sic) we can get," one wrote.

So far, the department has said only that the lockdowns were sparked by "credible intelligence" that "small groups of inmates" were planning "disruptions."

Rivera said the show of force was likely in response to a direct threat against the lives of corrections officers.

"They are being super tight-lipped. We are only being told they have credible information about a statewide uprising to attack corrections officers," he said.

"Assuming that's true, I'm hoping they are using sound reasoning because our officers are physically tired. Even before this lockdown, they couldn't get days off, and so they are exhausted. The body can only handle so much," Rivera said.

FDC's intelligence division received information that the threats may be timed to coincide with the "Millions for Prisoners' Human Rights" rally on Saturday in Washington, D.C. The loosely organized event is being billed on social media as a way to raise awareness about mass incarceration and human rights violations in prisons across the country.

But the event has received no media attention and very little publicity on the Internet. The department has also not been forthcoming about the restrictions that have been placed on its 97,000 inmates.

Glady initially said on Wednesday that no "basic privileges" would be affected, other than visitation. However, on Thursday, the Miami Herald learned that state prisons were on lockdown — and that all educational, vocational, rehabilitation, ministry and recreation programs had been scrubbed until further notice. Inmates are confined to their dorms, except at mealtime, FDC officials confirmed Thursday.

Violence among inmates — especially those in gangs — is at an all-time high in Florida prisons. Corrections officers have been stabbed and beaten, and prisoners have been killed in several clashes over the past several months.

"Florida needs to focus on why as a response it needs to lock down its prisons - too many prisoners serving far too long sentences, too few programs and inadequate staff, and too many who are mentally disabled," said Randall Berg, executive director and attorney at the Florida Justice Institute, which has successfully sued the agency for human rights abuses.

"Until Florida gets smart, we will continue to waste tax dollars on corrections which are needed elsewhere," he said.

Florida is the nation's third-largest prison system, behind California and Texas. FDC has 148 facilities, a budget of $2.4 billion, and a larger staff than any other state agency.

But staffing has been on critical levels for more than a year. Officers have been forced to work extensive overtime, costing the state $60 million a year.

Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant and former warden, said the lockdown isn't going to prevent tension — and may exacerbate it. Florida prisons do not have air conditioning, he pointed out.

"The summer, it gets so damn hot," he said. "Imagine if you had to sleep in your bedroom or stay in your home, locked in without any air conditioning — try it for one night. You would not be able to sleep."

Contact Julie K. Brown at [email protected]

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