More than a week after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 storm, Teresa Nelms still hadn’t heard from her son. He’s an inmate in Florida’s state prison system, and one of 4,200 evacuated in the days following the hurricane and scattered to facilities around the region.
The last time Nelms spoke to her son by phone (his name is being withheld for his safety) was 45 minutes before the storm made landfall Oct. 11. “I just want to hear his voice,” Nelms, who once worked as a corrections officer herself, told VICE News Thursday. Normally, she said, she speaks to her son, previously at , almost every day.
To track him down, Nelms used a website called Vinelink that helps victims of crimes track the movements of inmates. From that, she found he’d been moved from his previous place, Bay Correctional Institution, to Desoto Correctional, a men’s prison in Arcadia, more than 400 miles away in central Florida, and about 270 miles from Perry, where she lives.
“I get maybe two or three hours of sleep at night. Every time I try and eat, I get sick to my stomach,” she said.
There’s a fair chance he’s at Desoto for good, or at least until February, when he’s set to be released. Bay Correctional, a men’s prison in Panama City, Florida, was one of three state prisons that took a direct hit from the hurricane, and one of two that have been shut down completely, and possibly permanently.
An aerial photo taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed a roof partially torn off a major structure at Bay Correctional. Inmates at nearby Gulf Correctional, also closed until further notice, said they witnessed roofs being torn off buildings.
“We anticipate it will be a couple of weeks before we have a determination about when the damaged facilities will reopen,” Florida Department of Corrections press secretary Patrick Manderfield told VICE News.
While Florida continues to dig out from Hurricane Michael, the Department of Corrections is still assessing the damage sustained by the 12 state prison facilities across the Panhandle. The 4,200 evacuated from the Bay and Gulf facilities will be redistributed to other Florida prisons, some hundreds of miles away.
When Hurricane Michael bore down on Florida, the Department of Corrections decided not to try to have the prisoners ride it out. As damage became severe, they started secretly evacuating prisoners to different facilities. Inmates were were distributed across six facilities around the state: Baker Correctional, Central Florida Reception Center, Century Correctional, Columbia Correctional, Desoto Correctional, Mayo Correctional, and Wakulla.
With overcrowding already an issue in the Florida prison system the burden will be felt throughout the system. Florida has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., 20 percent higher than the national average. In the last year, inmate activists in Florida prisons have organized strikes in response to overcrowding and poor conditions.
To alleviate overcrowding, Florida lawmakers even passed a bill in 2010 ordering the construction of “Forestry Work Camps” to alleviate “an emergency situation” in state prisons. Inmates at six of those “camps” in or around Florida’s Panhandle were evacuated.
Two of those facilities – Gulf Forestry Camp and Panama Release Center – remain closed while authorities assess damage.
As of Thursday, phone lines and inmate money services were still down at Calhoun Correctional and Calhoun work center.
On Wednesday, inmates in affected prisons, plus those who were transferred to other institutions elsewhere, were given three free phone calls and 20 free stamps for emails.
Visitations are on hold statewide at all Florida prison facilities until Oct. 27
Jennifer Oneal, who works as an assistant manager at a Hungry Howie’s restaurant outside Orlando, said her boyfriend was transferred from Gulf Correctional to Mayo Annex, a smaller facility about 140 miles east. Her boyfriend learned that he was being transferred on Friday – days after the storm had hit.
Inmates were forced to leave most of their personal belongings behind. Oneal said her boyfriend was only allowed to carry his bedsheets, his “whites” or underwear, and some personal hygiene products with him. He would have to leave his other belongings, such as the new thermals she’d recently bought him, his tablet, and a different pair of shoes behind.
Once he got to Mayo, he was told that the move was permanent. Overall, Oneal said, Mayo is an upgrade compared to Gulf: there’s air conditioning in the dorms, and the food is better.
Corrections officials say that inmates’ personal items will eventually be shipped to them, but it’s not clear when that will be. Oneal said that it’s also not clear when money in his commissary account at Gulf will be transferred to Mayo. In the meantime, she said she’s had to pick up extra shifts at Hungry Howies, so that she can give him enough money to buy the things he needs, as well as pay for his food. “I’ve worked a week straight, to help get him extra money,” Oneal said.
It’s not just inmates and their families who have been affected by the hurricane. Corrections officers in the area are also being forced to readjust to life post-Michael.
“We have multiple staff in the region with significant property damage and losses,” Manderfield said. “Staff from affected facilities will be able to work at neighboring facilities until their institutions re-open, and we’re also bringing in officers from across the state to assist with the ongoing response efforts.”
Jim Baiardi, chapter trustee for Florida’s Police Benevolent Association, which advocates for the state’s correction officers, said he visited Gulf and Calhoun to examine damage to officer housing on prison grounds. He said things were bad.
“It looked like a scene from a war zone,” Baiardi said.
Baiardi said that the hurricane has put a significant strain on the corrections officers who work in those prisons that were damaged or evacuated.
“Most of them probably lost their homes, or their homes are at least severely damaged,” Baiardi said. “On top of that now, they’re gonna have to move to other facilities because there’s no inmates.”
That means a potentially longer commute. “While other people have been picking up their lives, they’ve been going to work. A lot of them have been working 16-hour days to get things back into shape,” Baiardi said. “Officers haven’t had any time off take care of their house or belongings, and they can’t afford to lose their house and their job in the same week.”
Cover: A bicyclist rides beneath storm-ravaged trees in Panama City, Fla., Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. On Wednesday this Florida panhandle community was blasted with 155-mph winds when Hurricane Michael made landfall just to the east of here. (Michael Snyder/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)