9 Investigates

'It's not a safe environment': Staff at country's largest prison says cuts put them in danger

SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — Some Central Florida corrections workers were recently sent to the hospital after fights at the Coleman Federal Prison Complex in Sumter County.

9 Investigates obtained hundreds of pages of federal documents, detailing dangerous conditions at the facilities. The incidents follow federal budget cuts that led to unfilled positions being permanently slashed.

Prison workers tell 9 Investigates reporter Karla Ray that they’re simply outmanned.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons was put under a hiring freeze in January 2017. In 2018, a cut permanently slashed 6,200 unfilled positions nationwide; 172 of those were at Coleman’s campus in Central Florida.

Since then, workers have been arguing that their safety is at risk. Records from a Freedom of Information Act request show in many incidents, they’re right.

“For some reason, we got hit one of the worst out of the entire bureau. We’re the largest [federal] prison in the country, and it’s not a safe environment,” Jose Rojas said.  Rojas serves as the president for the AFGE Local 506 union, representing prison workers.

Coleman’s campus saw a permanent reduction of 172 positions under a federal cut at the beginning of 2018.

“Correctional officers, facilities, teachers. Every department was affected,” Rojas said.

While congressional leadership pushed to stop additional cuts, citing correctional officer safety, 9 Investigates uncovered more than 300 incidents of staff being put in danger at Coleman, just since January.

That includes an incident in February, shortly after the cuts, when inmates started a fire inside a cell.

As an officer tried to put out the flames, an inmate charged toward the door, attempting to squeeze through the opening. The employee had to call for backup, and according to a federal document, "as a result of the smoke the other inmates were evacuated … causing the need for additional staff which disrupted the running of the institution."

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During another incident, in June, documents show the ‘control center announced staff in need of assistance’ due to ‘multiple inmates assaulting staff.’  It happened during a pat down, when a second inmate ran up and started punching an officer.  That employee had to go to the hospital.

“We’ve had violence toward our staff, inmates jumping on staff members.  We’ve had our staff members sent to the hospital with head injuries,” Rojas said.

The records also show continued problems with contraband, including hundreds of homemade weapons and a recent rash of K2.

“When you don't have the bodies to watch over those inmates, you have a lot of predatory inmates,” Rojas said.

Rojas says the union has filed a complaint with OSHA for workplace violence and safety issues.  For now, an additional 27 planned cuts at Coleman are on hold.

>> Contact investigative reporter Karla Ray

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.