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County jails nationwide at risk in disasters

December 14, 2014

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — When record-breaking floodwaters inundated a Florida jail, sending clothes dryers floating and natural gas seeping into the building that was running on generator power, no outside agency had the authority to force county officials to move the 600 men and women locked inside.

“All day people were telling the (corrections officers) that they were smelling gas. People were drowsy and getting sick, throwing up from the heat and the gas and the smell from the restrooms,” inmate Samuel McCreary told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview.

Hours later, an explosion ripped through bottom floor of the Escambia County jail, killing two inmates, injuring more than 200 and leaving a corrections officer paralyzed.

Civil rights activists say the result was predictable. County jail inmates across the nation are among the most vulnerable in natural disasters because there is little oversight of jails beyond local elected officials. Budgets are tight, spending on jails is politically unpopular and county officials, overwhelmed in dealing with the disaster surrounding them, ignore inmates.

“Every local jail is usually a world unto itself that operates independently and that often leads to bad outcomes,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s national prisons project.

Fathi’s organization along with Human Rights Watch, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other major human groups did a major study about the conditions in the Orleans Parish Prison after Hurricane Katrina.

As the floodwaters rose and New Orleans descended into chaos, corrections officers fled and left thousands of prisoners to fend for themselves.

“Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests,” the study said.

In Florida, FEMA, the Florida Department of Emergency Management and the Florida Bureau of prisons, all told The Associated Press that they have no authority over county jails even during natural disasters and said local officials make all decisions about if and how to move prisoners.

A grand jury had considered criminal negligence charges against Escambia County officials but concluded in November that there was not enough evidence to bring a case in the explosion.

The grand jury report noted that the jail was operating on generator power after the basement flooded. Clothes dryers were floating and records indicated natural gas flowed into the building. That continued throughout the day until a spark caused the deadly blast.

Former County Commissioner Gene Valentino, in office at the time, said the explosion followed years of infighting between commissioners and the sheriff over management of the Pensacola jail and efforts to bring it into compliance after a Department of Justice report cited “obvious and known systemic deficiencies” that led to violations of inmates’ constitutional rights.

The DOJ report cited a March 2011 study by the county that said “large insufficiencies in jail staffing ... raise the likelihood that something serious that could happen that would overwhelm the jail’s ability to respond.”

The county took control from the sheriff in October after debates over budget cuts. It was the third time the jail had switched from county commission to sheriff’s office supervision since the early 1990s.

Sheriff David Morgan said he did his best to operate the jail with limited resources and handed it back to county commissioners after they refused to approve a budget sufficient to fix the problems outlined in the DOJ report.

Morgan said he also warned commissioners that the jail was vulnerable to flooding.

Attorney Scott Barnes is representing some Escambia County inmates, including McCreary. He says no matter who was in charge, the county had a basic obligation to ensure prisoners’ safety.

“In any another place, if people are in fundamentally unsafe conditions they can leave. My clients were captives,” he said.

Escambia County now faces dozens of tort claims from prisoners who intend to sue over the explosion. The county is paying to house inmates in surrounding counties and to transport for them for court appearances. The county also faces the cost of building a new jail.

The jail blast threw McCreary, who was jailed on a probation violation involving a nonviolent drug charge, about 6 feet from his bottom bunk bed. Panic ensued, and dust made it difficult to see or breathe.

“We all just straight panicked,” McCreary said. “We were all trapped. People were ramming the door and yelling at the CO (corrections officer) to give us the keys and he was yelling that he would.” Finally, the door opened and everyone started rushing down the stairs.

Six months later, McCreary said he’s traumatized by the memories. He’s also angry.

“They should have evacuated us. People wouldn’t have died, people wouldn’t have been injured.”

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