Two more Florida prisons were on lockdown Friday, as state corrections officers and commanders attempted to keep order during a nationwide prison strike timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the riot at Attica prison in New York.
Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said “disturbances’’ had happened Friday morning at Gulf and Mayo Correctional Institutions, and that smaller ones were reported in a number of other prisons across the state.
A riot in advance of the strike happened at Holmes Correctional in Florida’s Panhandle on Wednesday night, involving more than 400 inmates. It caused damage to nearly every dorm and lasted into early Thursday morning, officials said. No one was seriously injured, but the department was concerned that the disturbance might be a harbinger of future trouble.
Florida’s prison system, the nation’s third-largest, will remain on high alert the rest of the weekend, bracing for further unrest. Glady said the disruptions Friday ranged from a handful of inmates refusing to perform their work assignments to “major” revolts.
She could not say how many had occurred, or how many inmates were involved. She said as of noon, there were no serious injuries to report and the turmoil was under control.
Florida’s prison system, with 100,000 inmates, has been dangerously understaffed for nearly a year, and several sieges have occurred in recent weeks. To further exacerbate tensions, many inmates have been forced to stay in their unairconditioned dorms, allowed out only to eat because there isn’t enough staff to guard them during outside recreation.
Over the past two years, the Miami Herald has published a series of stories documenting the brutal or unexplained deaths of inmates in Florida prisons, a record number of use-of-force incidents and corruption by guards and top officers.
In recent weeks, the department has had disturbances at Jackson Correctional, Gulf Correctional, Franklin Correctional and Okaloosa CI. All of them, like Holmes, are located in Region 1, in the Panhandle. A corrections officer was stabbed during a melee at Columbia CI in April.
Glady contends that the Florida uprisings are not in protest of “inhumane conditions’’ or abuse, but rather, more minor issues, such as not being able to have recreation or vocational programs; the quality of the food and no access to the canteen, where they can purchase stamps to write to their family, packaged food or toiletries.
The loosely organized national strike, a grassroots effort, comes on the anniversary of the prison riots at Attica, the 1971 prison siege near Buffalo, N.Y., considered the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history. Over 40 people died when inmates took control of the facility for four days, protesting racism, officer beatings, rancid food, no rehabilitation programs and forced labor.
Phillip A. Ruiz, an organizer for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the groups spearheading the Friday demonstrations, said conditions in America’s prisons aren’t that different from those at Attica 45 years ago.
“They are participating in work stoppages, hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of long-term isolation, inadequate healthcare, overcrowding, violent attacks and slave labor,’’ said Ruiz, whose committee is part of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union whose membership peaked a century ago.
Ruiz said organizers emphasized that the protests would be nonviolent. Florida corrections officers nevertheless were briefed and prepared to work all weekend in case there were uprisings, officials said.
Of the disturbances in Florida, the riot at Holmes involved the most inmates so far — more than 400 of the 1,100 men incarcerated there — and was spread across the compound.
Officers interviewed by the Herald said that Wednesday’s rebellion began in B Dorm about 6 p.m. One officer, stationed in a control center (called “the bubble”), was in charge of nearly 150 inmates. The prisoners put blankets and sheets over the windows of the bubble then proceeded to smash cameras, ransack the dorm and then began tearing away the ceiling and crawling in the attic, possibly trying to escape.
Officers from five other prisons were called in, as well as special RRTs (Rapid Response Teams) trained to handle riots. Though some officers were armed, no shots were fired, sources said.
Florida’s prison system, the nation’s third-largest, will remain on high alert the rest of the weekend, bracing for possible further unrest.
“We would get one dorm under control and then it would start in another dorm. It was every dorm, as if it was planned,” the Holmes officer said.
It took until 4 a.m. to bring the compound under control, he said. Officers were able to restrain many inmates after setting off canisters of chemicals, making it hard for the prisoners to breathe, the officer said.
The compound in Bonifay, a town of just over 4,000 that is bisected by Interstate 10, was still on lockdown Friday. The department did not say when the uprising happened, what precipitated it, how long it took to bring it under control or how much damage occurred.
Photographs leaked to the Herald showed damage to ceilings, floors, beds, walls, cameras and doors. The inmates were transported to other prisons, FDC said.
“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,” FDC’s statement concluded.
The riot was the latest in a series of disturbances that have plagued the agency since January. Many institutions are at minimum staffing levels because of a shortage of corrections officers statewide.
The staff at Holmes, like many Florida prisons, has an abundance of young, inexperienced officers who have had little training.
“These officers are 19, 20, 21, some of them still live at home. They put them in charge of dorms for 12 hours a day with professional convicts, all by themselves,” said the officer. “I’m not a worrier, but when you walk into those dorms you don’t know what you have or what they are going to do.”