When the inmates at Columbia Correctional Institution started shouting at him during one of his surprise prison inspections, Rep. David Richardson knew something was amiss.
“I’ve done this long enough to know adult males never want to talk to an outsider in a group setting,” said the Miami Beach Democrat.
The fear of retaliation and being singled out by gangs wasn’t enough to silence their need to complain about the problems they faced at the prison: toilets that won’t flush, no hot water, a majority of showers that didn’t work, broken heating system, cell windows jammed shut, head-splitting noise from an exhaust fan.
“The conditions were horrific — unfit for human habitation,” Richardson told the Herald/Times.
After a year focused on inspecting youth offender prisons, visiting 60 facilities and interviewing more than 225 inmates, Richardson made his first visit to Columbia Correctional on Nov. 23. As he often does, he randomly went into a couple of buildings in which inmates were arranged in quads with two-men cells.
“I announced who I am and what I’m doing and immediately these adult males started yelling out all the infrastructure problems,” he said.
The aggressive response from the normally cautious inmates surprised him. “It was surreal,” he said.
They told him that for three months they’ve had to endure an exhaust fan that was so loud they couldn’t hear themselves speak, toilets that took constant pushing for 20 minutes to flush, showers that didn’t work and no hot water to make soup or coffee purchased at the canteen.
“People might think this is no big deal — so you can’t make a cup of coffee — but it’s the little things that tend to be causation of unrest and riots,” Richardson said. “It can be the coffee one day, then the showers and they all build up until the next thing you’ve got is a riot situation.”
He moved to a second cell block, a third and a fourth. “Same story,” Richardson said. His inspection of Buildings F and G found problems in every cell block. He spoke to Warden Chris Hodgson, who told him he would move the inmates with the problem toilets.
“I said, of course, but my question is: Why didn’t you move them two weeks ago when the problem started?” he said. “Why did you leave them in a situation like this?”
In the last six months, the Florida Department of Corrections has had to quell at least six “major disturbances” and numerous smaller unrests at prisons, said Michelle Glady, FDC spokesperson.