As Hurricane Michael bore down on the Florida Panhandle, the state's Department of Corrections decided inmates in 12 prison facilities in the storm’s path would ride it out. Now, reports of severe damage to those facilities are starting to emerge: Roofs have been ripped off, buildings are flooded, phones are down, and access to bottled water is limited.
An aerial photograph of Bay Correctional Facility in Panama City shows a roof peeled back from a large building and debris strewn across the yards.
"Much like the rest of the Panhandle, our institutions did sustain damage due to the hurricane," the Florida Department of Corrections said, in a statement. "All inmates are safe, secure and have never been without food or water."
The damage is severe enough that inmates are being moved, in secret. Family members of inmates at three facilities, Bay Correctional, Gulf Correctional and Calhoun Correctional Institution, all men’s prisons, told VICE News, they’d received word from inmates Friday that evacuations were underway, but they don’t know where they’re going or when they’ll be hearing from them next.
Florida’s Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether inmates are being transferred. “In the event an institution needs to evacuated, or individual inmates need to be moved, the Department will not announce movement until it is complete,” a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the mothers, fathers, girlfriends, wives, brothers and sisters of inmates incarcerated in prisons are desperate for any information about their loved ones’ wellbeing. Frustrated by the lack of communication from Florida’s Department of Corrections, they’ve set up a private Facebook group dedicated to sharing any information about the conditions of facilities.
Florida’s Department of Corrections said that no inmates or staff in the approximately 12 prisons in the storm’s direct path were injured. “All inmates are secure, safe, and have access to drinking water,” the department said in a statement. “Meals are being distributed, and all medical needs are being addressed.”
“Last call was to my brother and was in the middle of the storm, and he said the roof had just been blown off”
Jennifer Oneal, the assistant manager of a Hungry Howie’s restaurant outside Orlando, told VICE News that her boyfriend is at a medium-security facility at Gulf Correctional Institution, a men’s prison about 20 miles inland from the coast with a capacity of about 1,500.
Around noon on Friday, officials were preparing to evacuate his dorm.
Oneal said she last spoke to her boyfriend on Wednesday at around 2 p.m., shortly after Hurricane Michael made landfall. “He was looking out of the window, and said the roof from the dorm across him was half gone. A quarter of the roof on the other side of the dorm that he’s in had caved in and blown off, and the sprinkler systems were pouring water everywhere,” she said. “They didn’t even board up any of the windows.”
Then, she said, the phone line cut out.
“It just cut off. I didn’t go to bed until about 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., and I was up at 8 a.m. for work. I was stressing about whether he’s OK or not. I can’t help but worry, especially when I’m sitting there watching the news, and everything I see is leveled to the ground,” Oneal said.
Matilde Robles, of Fort Worth, Texas, has a brother incarcerated at Gulf Correctional.
“We have had no contact with him,” said Robles, 33. “Last call was to my brother and was in the middle of the storm, and he said the roof had just been blown off, and then disconnected. We’ve heard nothing since. Beyond concerned.”
Aerial photos of Bay Correctional Institution, a men’s prison located on the edge of a FEMA-designated flood zone, show that the roof has ripped off at least one of the buildings in the prison complex.
Christina Underwood, 42, says that her boyfriend’s dorm was in that building. “I haven’t heard from him since 1 p.m. Wednesday,” Underwood said. “I’m going out of my mind, and I know he’s going out of his mind.” Underwood says she lives by the coast in Wakulla County, which was also badly impacted by Hurricane Michael.
“I know he’s worried because I live so close to the coast. I can deal without talking to him for a few more days if I know for sure that he’s OK, and that he knows we’re OK,” Underwood said.
“The last I heard from my son was about 45 minutes before the hurricane made landfall”
Teresa Nelms, 49, says her son is also at Bay Correctional Facility. “The last I heard from my son was about 45 minutes before the hurricane made landfall,” Nelms said. “I am a nervous wreck because we can’t find out anything.”
Sara, who declined to state what facility her brother is in or her last name for fear of retaliation, said that the last time they heard from him was on Tuesday. “My brother and I are best friends, He emails us all day,” she said. “Not knowing is what’s killing us the most. Are they safe? What are they gonna do to make sure these guys are OK.”
“This is affecting thousands upon thousands of families who have loved ones who are incarcerated,” Sara added. “They’re not animals, they’re human beings who made mistakes.”
Though Florida’s Department of Corrections says inmates in facilities impacted by the hurricane have enough to eat and drink, Oneal was getting a very different version of events.
“We’re getting phone calls coming in saying otherwise,” Oneal said. “I’m told they’re not giving them bottled water, telling them to drink tap water at their own risk.”
There are also reports of damage at Jackson Correctional Institution in Malone, Florida – about 70 miles inland. Lindsay Pitts, 33, from South Carolina, said her husband is an inmate there, and told her he felt like he was going to die during the storm.
“They lost the roof to their building, all the drywall and inside walls began to crumble, and the outside walls were shaking and waving back and forth,” Pitts said.
Because the facility has lost power, inmates have been moved into an open bay dorm, that usually only accommodates a maximum of 70 inmates. “He says there are way more than that right now, sleeping on the floor and every corner they can find,” Pitts said. “Their food supply is running low.”
Cover: An aerial photograph shows destruction at the Bay Correctional Facility near Panama City, Florida, which appears to be missing a roof on a major building. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce)