Hurricane Michael was a disaster for Florida prisons. Here’s why.

Two officers walking down death row at The Union Correctional Institution near Raiford. [Florida Department of Corrections]

TALLAHASSEE — After Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle, a key portion of the state’s corrections system was crippled, leaving nearly 300 prison employees displaced and more than 5,000 relocated inmates packing facilities across Florida.

New figures obtained by The News Service of Florida show a significant problem in a region where a sizable part of the workforce is employed by the corrections system and a good chunk of the state’s inmate population is housed.

“In these districts, other than Leon County and Gadsden County, it is school boards first and prisons second,” Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said about the employers that fuel the region’s economy.

It has taken months to know exactly how bad the Oct. 10 storm has impacted the region’s 23 prisons. But officials with the Florida Department of Corrections said this week that in addition to tens of millions of dollars in damage to facilities, the storm also displaced 284 prison employees, increased job vacancies and forced shifting 5,000 inmates to facilities across the state.

Nearly 800 prison employees who lost or sustained severe damage to their homes in the storm have also received a total of $450,000 in assistance from the Corrections Foundation, a non-profit organization established to aid the Department of Corrections.

“It generally takes one to three days between the time the information is received and the time the checks are generated,” said Michelle Glady, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Overall, the foundation has provided $8.3 million in financial assistance to correctional staff since 1999, Glady said.

The department is also struggling to fill vacancies in the hurricane-impacted areas. Before the hurricane hit, the region’s 23 prisons had a vacancy rate of 12 percent. As of Feb. 22, that vacancy rate had ticked up to 14 percent, with vacancies for prison guards and probation officers.

The probation-officer vacancies in Panama City, for example, increased from nine to 14.

“It is not the most pleasant job to have, and so we are always looking for corrections officers, but now when you have a housing challenge it makes it even more so,” Montford said.

The relocation of thousands of inmates has also impacted facilities in other areas of the state, some of which are dealing with staffing shortages as the department struggles to retain and recruit guards.

“Rather than overcrowd any nearby facilities, inmates were dispersed across the state to their new permanent facilities,” Glady said.

Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach as a Category 4 storm and caused massive damage as it barreled north into Georgia. Part of that damage was in the Panama City area, but rural communities were also hard hit in places such as Gulf, Liberty, Calhoun and Jackson counties.

State lawmakers have not crafted an exact plan about how to address the storm’s impact on the prison system. The hurricane also caused more than $50 million in storm damage to corrections buildings.

When asked, Montford said he does not have an answer as of yet.

“This is a long, long-range problem,” Montford said. “We are facing a very complex and long-range problem.”

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Yvonne Shaffer