Authorities have evacuated more than 4,100 inmates from two Florida correctional facilities badly damaged during Hurricane Michael, four days after the storm made its destructive landfall in the state.
The Florida Department of Corrections said Saturday that 2,600 prisoners were evacuated from the Gulf Correctional Institution and its annex due to “significant structural damage” caused by Michael. Another 305 prisoners were also evacuated from a part of Calhoun Correctional Institution for similar reasons. On Sunday, 959 were removed from the Bay Correctional Facility, a private institution, in Tallahassee.
“The evacuated facilities sustained significant damage to roofs and security infrastructure,” the department said in a statement. “Staff and inmates at these facilities were not injured during the storm. All inmates were secure and had access to food and drinking water through the duration of the storm.”
As BuzzFeed News reported last week, the Gulf Correctional Institution sustained major damage when Hurricane Michael hit, making landfall about 30 miles away from the facility. Gulf Correctional, located on the Florida Panhandle in Wewahitchka, had not been evacuated before Michael, and instead took in inmates from other corrections facilities that the state had shut down for the storm.
State officials did not respond last week to repeated questions about damage to the Gulf Correctional Institution. But during a visit to the site Friday, BuzzFeed News observed that the roofs of at least two of the facility’s buildings were badly damaged, and a structure outside the prison fence — as well as the facility’s own brick-and-concrete signage — had completely collapsed.
Family members of inmates and employees at the facility said their loved ones had confirmed the damage, and described chaotic and deteriorating conditions, including destroyed dormitories, power outages, and limited supplies of food and water.
“They are not handing out bottled waters. [They were] told to drink tap water at their own risk,” said Jennifer O’Neal, recounting a conversation she had Friday with her boyfriend, who is an inmate at Gulf Correctional Institution. O’Neal and two relatives BuzzFeed News spoke to last week said that they believed the inmates would be evacuated Friday.
In its statement Sunday, the Florida Department of Corrections said that “evacuations took place as soon as the roads leading to the facilities were passable and safe for inmate transport.”
In a conversation with BuzzFeed News on Monday, department spokeswoman Michelle Glady explained that officials had to wait until roads were passable "so we could safely transport the inmates and get busses in and out of the area."
She pushed back on reports that the prisoners were lacking food and water, stating that there was food and water on hand and staged outside the facilities.
"We have been through hurricanes before and there are plans in place for an institution not being able to evacuate right away," Glady said. "After the storm hit we got in there and were able to verify everyone's wellbeing and bring in extra food and water."
When asked why they did not evacuate before the hurricane, Glady said they had been watching the storm as it had been developing and officials had not expected it to be as detrimental as it was, given that many of the buildings are concrete.
There are about 50 major prisons across the state in addition to private facilities, she said.
"The majority of the major ones are in North Florida in the area where the storm did a lot of damage," she said. "For this area, this is one of the worst storms we have seen and it's severely impacted our communication. We know inmate family members cannot get a hold of loved ones and that is creating a lot of anxiety for everyone.
Talal Ansari and Zahra Hirji contributed reporting.