Piney Point poses ‘unreasonable risk’ for Manatee jail inmates, A.C.L.U. argues

Officials say the jail is prepared if the old phosphate plant is breached, but an emergency petition filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit argues the inmates should be released or relocated.
Aerial view overlooking the site of the Piney Point wastewater release on Sunday, April 4, 2021 in Palmetto.
Aerial view overlooking the site of the Piney Point wastewater release on Sunday, April 4, 2021 in Palmetto. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 6, 2021|Updated April 6, 2021

PALMETTO — When it became clear Saturday that the old Piney Point phosphate plant was in danger of imminent collapse, officials raced to evacuate about 315 nearby homes that risked being inundated by a 20-foot wastewater flood. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in three surrounding counties.

But at the Manatee County Central Jail, across U.S. 41 highway from the plant, only about 267 inmates were evacuated. The rest were moved to the second floor. More than 700 people remain detained, waiting for news from the ongoing efforts to control the leak.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and Larry Eger, public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, filed an emergency petition arguing the inmates are held at “unreasonable risk of serious harm,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The petition asks for their release or relocation.

“The concern is that there may be a deluge of wastewater inundating the jail and cutting off access to emergency services, cutting off access to the first floor, and causing an overcrowding situation during the COVID pandemic,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an A.C.L.U. attorney who helped write the petition.

He said some of the people in Manatee County Central Jail remain detained not because they have been determined a danger to the community, but because they cannot afford bail ahead of trial — like Shannon Glaze, who is held on a bail of $1,620 while awaiting trial on charges of marijauna possession and trespassing. Others are serving sentences for low-level misdemeanors. Jail employees also are at risk, he said. They enter and exit the jail through the first floor.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells has said the jail is prepared to handle a breach — he expects the jail would receive less than a foot of flooding. He called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

Ed Brodsky, state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit, said he believes the situation is under control, but his office stands ready to review cases to help release inmates and minimize the jail population at the sheriff’s request.

“At this time, I’m comfortable with the assurances the sheriff has made that inmates and staff are safe,” he said.

But Stevenson said the decision by the state attorney’s office to continue detaining people who can’t afford monetary bail during a crisis is a choice.

“The state attorney is selected to look over the public safety of our community — this doesn’t have to come from the sheriff,” he said. “Is it really necessary to detain all of these people in jail? Especially when a significant number of them are waiting for trial and simply unable to purchase their freedom?”

Stevenson said he hopes the threat will soon be under control.

“We’d like nothing more than realizing in a week — wow, we didn’t need to file this, nothing did happen,” he said. “But the Constitution doesn’t require you to hope things happen. It requires you take reasonable measures so that people are not facing unreasonable risks of serious harm.”

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On Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders were lifted. The Sheriff’s Office said the relocated inmates “will be returning to the Manatee County Jail in the very near future.”

This is a developing story. Stay with for updates.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.