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Florida prison laborer killed after equipment fell on him, video shows

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which looks into all inmate deaths, is still investigating the incident.
Eric Welch, a Florida inmate, died on Feb 12 after an accident at his work program [Florida Department of Corrections]

The Florida inmate who died earlier this month at his assigned job site in Belle Glade was killed after a piece of an industrial mower fell on top of him.

Eric Welch, 58, had been cleaning the underside of a mower that attaches to the back of a tractor and is used to mow ditch banks and fields, said Dee Kiminki, chief administrative officer of Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit that had been employing Welch.

At the time of the incident, Welch appeared to be holding a raised “wing” of the mower while another inmate released a safety restraining strap keeping the wing upright, according to a security camera footage obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

The video shows the wing of the mower slamming to the ground, pinning Welch beneath it. The inmate who had released the safety strap is seen trying to lift the wing off Welch before the clip of the video ends. Kiminki said Welch had instructed the other inmate to remove the safety strap.

Kiminki said several inmate workers manually lifted the mower wing off Welch within a couple minutes. She said six inmates, including Welch, were working at the Belle Glade job site that day, along with two supervisors.

Related: Florida prison laborer dies after job site accident

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which looks into all inmate deaths, is still investigating the incident, Kiminki said.

The video, provided by PRIDE, shows about 90 seconds of footage before the incident and about five seconds after Welch was struck. The footage doesn’t show any supervisors. But Kiminki said that, to her knowledge, there was a supervisor in the area at the time of the incident.

Kiminki said Welch had used a forklift to raise the wing initially so it could be cleaned. She said the forklift should have been used to brace the mower wing before removing the safety restraining strap from the wing and lowering it to its normal operation position. She said she did not understand why Welch apparently would have thought he could lower the wing by himself.

The Florida Department of Corrections sends inmates to work at PRIDE facilities; the private, Brandon-based nonprofit uses inmate labor to provide goods and services that the organization then sells to both the public and private sectors. The work is also meant to teach inmates skills they can use upon release, to reduce idleness and to reduce recidivism.

Kiminki had previously told the Times that Welch had been in the work program for about a year and had been employed as a tool room clerk and equipment operator.

PRIDE’s Belle Glade workers primarily handle body repair and painting of equipment, including welding, grinding and sanding, Kiminki said in an email.

PRIDE was the victim of a ransomware attack in December that it said encrypted more than 95 percent of its files, including all inmate and staff personnel files. In response to a recent records request, it said it lost its prior records on inmate injuries as part of that attack.

Kiminki said that, to the best of her knowledge, Welch’s death “was the first of its kind at a PRIDE industry.” She said there is currently a pending inmate claim from Union Correctional Institute related to partial loss of a left thumb in 2017. She declined to provide more details on that case, saying it is still in litigation.