BONIFAY - Law enforcement advocates are pointing to Wednesday's prison uprising involving 400 inmates at Holmes Correctional Institute as an illustration of a larger problem some say has been largely ignored by the state.
Florida Department of Corrections Director of Communications Michelle Glady confirmed 400 inmates housed in multiple units were involved - but stopped short of calling the incident a riot, instead referring to the uprising as a "major disturbance."
"At this time, the situation has been resolved and the facility remains on a Level 3 lockdown," said Glady on Thursday. "There was one inmate on inmate injury that occurred during the disturbance. No staff were injured. The Department is currently accessing the facility for any damages that have resulted and have transported all the involved inmates to other locations. Additional information will be made available following a comprehensive after action review and investigation."
DOC officials have not confirmed if the unrest was part of the nationwide prisoner strike planned for September 9 in observance of the anniversary of the Attica Prison riot that occurred at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York in 1971, but officials have acknowledged the possible connection.
"The Department is aware of the upcoming date’s potential significance," DOC Press Secretary Alberto C. Moscoso said Thursday. "Ensuring the safety and security of staff and inmates remains FDC’s chief priority."
While no one group is identified as solely behind the movement, it has been linked to groups such as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), Free Alabama Movement, Free Ohio Movement, and Free Mississippi Movement.
Prisoners in at least 24 states have networked to protest what organizers call poor living conditions and enslavement - but the protests aren't expected to stop within the prison walls.
"People are organizing across the United States and the world in order to stand in the streets in solidarity with those locked behind bars who will strike on September 9th against prison slavery," states activist website It's Going Down. "Already, a wide range of actions have taken place in the run up to the strike. This includes large scale flyering and street propaganda campaigns, banner drops, noise demonstrations outside of jails and detention facilities, and informational events … These actions also bring many organizations, crews, and individuals together that before have previously never worked side by side and helps expose white supremacy as both a system of social control and racial apartheid and an apparatus of management that facilitates the creation of billions of dollars of profits."
At press time Friday, inmate "sit downs" and work stoppage had already begun at Holmes Correctional Institute.
As inmates prepared to protest what organizers call enslavement, law enforcement advocate and columnist for Corrections One Anthony Gangi pointed out the 13th Amendment condemns slavery and involuntary servitude - except as a punishment for crime and stressed that while inmate unity isn't always bad, it could put officers and other inmates at great risk.
“Sometimes inmates can unite for a positive cause and effect positive change," said Gangi, who hosts Tier Talk, an iHeart radio program dedicated to issues relating to the corrections field. "The intent is what you have to look at. Are they helping the population by following policy and procedure, or do they want to incite unrest? Any perceived injustices can cause inmates to unite because in their mind, that unity is justified, and that becomes dangerous. Inmates will constantly test the officers' ability to maintain control of the facilities. They are always looking for a weakness."
Many officers point to recent policy changes and lack of qualified personnel as the root of the problem.
Anthony Sheffield says he left his ten-year career as a WashingtonCounty correctional officer after he lost faith in the department he served.
"When I first started working for the department, administration always had your back because the policies in place were able to protect both the staff and the inmates," said Sheffield. "Now, those policies have drastically changed, and there are no repercussions for what inmates do. Florida's prison system has become a 'kindler, gentler' place where officers aren't allowed to perform their number one role, which is protecting the public and maintaining the safety of the other inmates. It's political correctness gone wrong. Writing disciplinary reports is useless because Tallahassee will no longer take gain time away based on inmate behavior."
Sheffield says the frustration is what led FDOC's record turnover, leaving prisons to replace veteran officers with those who have less experience.
While documented incidents of use of force have continued to rise at Florida prisons in recent years, officers have not seen a pay increase in about a decade, leaving Florida simultaneously ranked 29th in the nation for officer pay at - an average of $32,000 a year - and as the nation's third largest prison system.
"Assaults on staff have risen, and officers feel unprotected," said Sheffield. "Senior officers are walking away daily … soon, all we'll have left to govern the inmates are young recruits who are armed only with what they've learned from a textbook, which means they don't have the experience needed to deal with situations when they arise - and few veteran officers to show them the way. This can lead to unnecessary use of force, which only adds to risk for inmates. The prisons are way understaffed. The inmates know that, and they will take advantage."
Gangi echoed Sheffield's concerns.
"It's getting to the point that corrections is desperate, and they're looking for numbers, so it's quantitative and not qualitative," he said. "The type of person you want for this job is not going to answer the call if they don't have the incentive. (The attitude is) 'we will take anyone who decides to come after the position' so we really shouldn't be shocked when those kind of hires are caught doing something they shouldn't do."
A staffing emergency
FDOC is trying to beef up its staff. The department attempted to secure $12 million from the state to hire more than 700 positions in the new fiscal year in a proposal to switch from 12-hour to 8-hour shifts, but legislators denied the request in March, arguing that the department has enough vacant jobs already, as well as enough money to switch shifts in some prisons.
In all FDOC's $2.4 billion budget includes about $958 million for a total of 24,107 positions.
In April, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones announced the department intended to hire 4,000 more officers, despite the obstacle from the state.
“Properly staffing our institutions is critical to the safe and secure operations of our facilities,” said Jones in a press release. “To ensure that our prisons are staffed appropriately, the Department is seeking more than 4,000 qualified individuals to proudly and bravely serve our state as correctional officers.”
The hiring spree came just months after auditors with the National Institute of Corrections warned the department was in violation of state rules that require it to declare a “staffing emergency” when a prison was below "critical staff," or the minimum number of personnel to maintain basic safety and operations.
The concern is highlighted by reports of unrest at several North Florida prisons in recent weeks, including Columbia, Holmes, Jackson, Gulf, Franklin, and Okaloosa.
The Holmes County Times-Advertiser submitted a Freedom of Information Act inquiry to FDOC Thursday requesting a variety of documents relating to disturbances and staffing at Holmes CI and NFRC within the last five years. FDOC acknowledged receiving the request, and while the department stated it needed time to research other questions, it addressed the question as to if Holmes Correctional Institute was below critical staffing at the time of Wednesday's disturbance only by saying: "Staff from several other institutions responded to the incident at Holmes CI."
Gangi says overall, the perception of the prison's role in society needs to change.
"Society still sees prison as punitive, but it can be an opportunity for a new beginning," said Gangi. "From higher education, to drug rehabilitation programs, there are programs that can give prisoners the tools they need to start over. And those who want to take advantage of the program have different motivators, whether it's to do better for their family or just so they can go home and better themselves. It's not uncommon for officers to take pride in seeing an inmate get his diploma or achieve other goals. But when you have threats from inmates with bad intentions, you have to shut those valuable programs down because safety and security is the priority. And this isn't fair to those who just want to better themselves, do their time appropriately, and get home to their families."
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