Inmates drilled through a brick dorm wall, smashed bathroom fixtures, pulled out toilets and left two dorms uninhabitable during a late-night riot at Franklin Correctional Institution in North Florida late Thursday that resulted in extensive damage but no injuries.
About 300 inmates were involved, prison officials confirmed.
“Nobody’s been hurt and the situation is under control,” said Alberto Moscoso, spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections. He called it a “security-related injury involving a dynamic mixture of inmates.”
Inmates in the damaged Dorms E and F were bused to other facilities early Friday after the disturbance, which began at about 11 p.m. Thursday, Moscoso confirmed. The prison, which has the capacity to house more than 1,200 inmates, was then placed on lockdown “as a precaution,” he said.
“Utilizing a trained tactical response, department staff quickly and effectively quelled the situation,” he said in a statement. “Due in no small part to the judgment and professionalism of the responding officers, there were no serious injuries to either inmates or employees.”
This is the second major disturbance at Franklin Correctional in Carrabelle since January and the third this year. In April, a corrections officer was ambushed and stabbed, and several other officers injured, during a fight at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City.
In January, Florida prison officials quelled a riot by firing warnings shots and shooting inmates with non-lethal pellets.
For the past year, three outside audits of the Department of Corrections have said that the agency’s dangerously low staffing levels leave the agency vulnerable to inmate disruptions at the state’s 49 prisons. The agency losses about one-third of its corrections officers each year, according to the reports, and those who replace them are often young and inexperienced.
But cuts made during the recession have not been restored and officers have been required to work overtime to cover extra shifts while many positions are left with one officer responsible for two assignments — a practice known as “ghosting.”
FDC Secretary Julie Jones has acknowledged for months that state prisons are dangerously understaffed — and that they’ve narrowly avoided inmate riots. She asked legislators for $36 million to fund 734 new officer positions that Jones called “imperative” to improve staffing conditions by reducing shifts from 12 to 8 hours, reducing overtime and fatigue.
But legislators rejected Jones’ request and instead provided funding for only 215 new officers.
“These types of instances are symptoms of an underlying problem within the Department of Corrections that the Legislature is just beginning to understand,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who called for one of the outside audits in 2015. “The short term may be more money, but the solution over the long term is more challenging.”
He echoed the findings of the reports. “With a 4.7 percent unemployment rate, when you're paying $32,000-a-year, these people have real options,’’ he said. “We can recruit officers but retention is abysmal. We’re losing our prison guards every year and often our facilities are guarded by junior, unseasoned corrections officers.”
Les Cantrell, head of Teamsters 2011, the union representing the state's 22,000 correctional and probation officers, said that Franklin, like most of Florida's prisons, is operating with the bare minimum number of officers.
This "critical" staffing level means that officers are working long hours for weeks on end, he said. Security is further strained when inmates are kept idle for most of the day because virtually all vocational programming is shut down when prisons are on critical staffing levels. It's too dangerous to allow inmates to move about freely and there isn't enough staff to monitor inmates participating in programs.
Cantrell said it's common to have one officer supervising more than 150 inmates, and when the officers are rookies who have only been on the job a few months, the inmates often “have more experience inside the fence than some of our officers have.''
Cantrell said the prison system needs at least 2,000 more officers to be able to operate at safe levels. While lawmakers have approved hiring 215 new positions, Cantrell said that won't put a dent in the shaky facilities like Franklin because FDC hasn't been able to fill the positions.
County law enforcement offices pay more in salary, and the prison system can't compete. State corrections officers haven't had raises in years years, and the raise they did get five years ago was offset by contributions that they've had to make to their retirement.
"The Legislature needs to understand that they need to increase our pay so more officers come, more officers stay and we have more boots on the ground to make the prisons safe,’’ he said.
Moscoso would not comment on the staffing levels at Franklin but acknowledged: “Staffing is an issue across all our institutions across the state right now.’’
The agency will conduct an investigation of the incident to determine and evaluate the response, he said.
Staff writer Julie Brown contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas: firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas