TALLAHASSEE — The biggest storm on record has forced Florida prison officials to conduct the largest evacuation of prisoners in state history.
More than 7,000 inmates from work camps and community release centers in south and central Florida are begin evacuated from wind and flood-prone areas to more secure facilities across the state, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones told reporters Thursday.
In many cases, the inmates are being moved from low-lying areas and less secure facilities to related concrete block main institutions, said Michelle Glady, Corrections Department spokeswoman.
An estimated 4,000 inmates are being moved by buses and vans in Region 4, South Florida, another 3,000 inmates are being transported in Central Florida and there will be others who are transferred to stronger facilities in the northern part of the state, Jones said. The evacuations began Wednesday and will be completed by Friday, she said.
"I told every regional director to act like this storm was going to hit them directly,'' Jones said. She asked staff to find a way to "shelter inmates in place" in the safest buildings "and we're doing that."
The exodus means that many of the state's 97,000 inmates will spend the next several days in cramped quarters just weeks after the state put the entire prison system on lockdown fearing a coordinated uprising from inmates at several state facilities.
"I feel very comfortable that our inmate population is safe, our officers are safe,'' Jones said. "We have food and water for seven days and we have extensive plans for damage assessment, follow up."
Within 24 hours of the movement, family members of inmates will be able to track where their relatives have been transported by searching the agency's website.
In some cases, the inmates will be transported to facilities in evacuations zones which are expected to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds and flooding, Jones said.
Despite increased gang activity and a summer of unrest that has plagued Florida's troubled prison system, Jones was upbeat about the development. She said the inmates are in "close quarters right now" and are being given time outside with "lots of canteen" privileges, increased access to phone calls, and "lots of activities right now."
"They understand what's going on,'' she said. "They're worried about their families and their families are worried about them and for the prison population it's very collegial."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas