Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch is delivering a book to every prison warden and legislator who will listen: “The Devil’s Butcher Shop,” reports the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times. The book chronicles one of the deadliest prison riots in U.S. history at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1980. For 30 hours on a February weekend, prisoners took 12 corrections officers hostage, mutilated and murdered 33 inmates, hacked some with knives, tortured others with blow torches, and raped and terrorized scores of others. Inch, who came to Florida after a brief stint as head of the federal Bureau of Prisons, believes the New Mexico riot was foreseeable and preventable — and Florida should take heed. “They had a lot of the warning signs that we have,’’ he explains. He points to a white board on the wall and a graph that shows how Florida’s prison system had “gone from excellence, to satisfactory to marginal” — just as New Mexico’s did.
Years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to an understaffed, inexperienced crew of Florida corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs. They operate out of aging facilities with an increasingly hostile inmate population — as many 70 percent of whom enter with a substance abuse problem — and a gang hierarchy that is powerful and growing. He points to the dotted line on his chart that shows how outlier conditions that spawned the New Mexico riot could be replicated in Florida. He says, “The status quo is not sustainable …. We are now at the point that we must pay for the savings garnered in previous years.’’ Florida’s prison system is the nation’s third largest, with 95,000 incarcerated and 166,000 on probation. Only 18 of the 50 largest facilities have air conditioning, and conditions got worse in August as windows were boarded up as Hurricane Dorian approached. To read more about Florida’s troubled justice system, see TCR’s conference page on “Florida’s Path to Justice Reform.”