Thousands of detainees in Hurricane Ian-affected areas of southwest Florida were relocated or evacuated under contingency plans drawn up before the major weather event.
The Florida Department of Corrections said at least 25 facilities have been evacuated, in cities including Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Bradenton. The FDC, the state’s largest agency and the third-largest state prison system in the United States, houses more than 80,000 inmates, of whom approximately 2,500 have been evacuated or transferred “to facilities better equipped to withstand to the effects of the storm”.
FDC spokesman Paul Walker said Newsweek that no detainee has been released. He said the plan in place had succeeded.
“In Florida, that’s what we do,” he said. “Hurricanes are a part of life.”
It was reported that all facilities remain secure and no inmates or service personnel were injured. All service personnel worked around the clock as usual, with personnel from unaffected areas assisting in the aftermath of the storm.
All inmates have food and water, as part of pre-hurricane preparations that included bagged meals in the event of a power outage or inclement weather affecting the interior of the facility.
Facility damage assessments are still ongoing, officials added.
At Lee and Collier county jails, which are not overseen by the FDC, officials reported that no inmates were injured. The hard-hit Fort Myers is located in Lee County.
Anita Iriarte, spokeswoman for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, said Miami New Times that the office refused to evacuate inmates from its 457-bed facility in downtown Fort Myers as the Category 4 hurricane approached.
This decision was made even though Lee County’s own map indicates the jail is in a mandatory evacuation zone.
On Thursday, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said in a statement that inmates at that facility were safe and “with great caution they have been moved to the main jail on an upper floor.”
The Fort Myers News Press reported that officials in Collier County, home to Naples, also confirmed that no inmate deaths or injuries have been recorded in their jurisdiction.
Angel D’Angelo, co-founder of the advocacy organization Restorative Justice Coalition in Tampa, said Newsweek that his group was “disappointed” by the lack of evacuations in places like Lee and Collier counties, saying a hurricane of this magnitude could cause immense physical damage, health problems, long power outages and other “catastrophic” events.
“We are disappointed that they did not make the decision to evacuate to these areas… We hope those responsible will be held accountable,” D’Angelo said. “The officials who made the decision essentially decided to gamble human lives.”
He did, however, praise Hillsborough County, the fourth most populous county in Florida and home to Tampa.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Granit said Newsweek that approximately 160 inmates were moved from Orient Road Prison to Falkenburg Road Prison, as Orient is in an evacuation zone while Falkenburg is not.
Falkenburg has a total population of 2,785 inmates and 3,052 beds.
“Our detention assistants continued their shifts during the storm, monitoring inmates and ensuring the building remained safe for everyone inside,” Granit said. “Additional food and water have been prepared in advance in case of a breakdown.
“Fortunately, we had no issues at the prison that were brought to my attention.”
Newsweek contacted Lee and Collier counties, as well as several advocacy groups, including the ACLU Florida.