Forgive me if I’m not completely heartbroken.
First thing this morning, a reader sent me a story saying that there was a gas explosion last night at Pensacola FL’s Escambia County Jail–a facility which has figured large in my relationships with Derek and Alex King–killing 2, injuring 184, and destroying a part of the complex. The two dead were inmates and the 184 wounded included both inmates and corrections officers. Three people were unaccounted for until late in the day Thursday, when they were identified among the survivors. Yet, much to the frustration of family members, officials have not been forthcoming about the identities or conditions of any victims, living or dead.
The explosion occurred around 11:30 pm CDT Wednesday in Escambia County jail’s booking facility and caused the four-story building to partially collapse. A man who works at a nearby convenience store said the blast felt like an earthquake. “There was a big flash that lit up the whole sky and the whole area shook for what felt like a good five seconds,” he said.
A memo e-mailed to the Pensacola City Council said that “preliminary investigations indicate that the laundry room flooded and may have been leaking gas which [was] not reported yesterday.”
About 600 inmates–400 women and 200 men–were in the building at the time, said a local spokesperson. There has been major flooding in the area and authorities have said there is possibly a link between the explosion and the recent flooding in the area. The incident occurred in the wake of major flooding in the Pensacola area. The city picked up 15.55 inches of rain on Tuesday, the all-time wettest day on record there.
The injured were brought to hospitals and the uninjured inmates were brought to jails in neighboring counties, said the spokesperson. Authorities said some of the inmates were released from hospitals. There is a report of one guard undergoing surgery. Not all inmates were yet accounted for, he said, with officials waiting until the building was safe to enter. The jail is almost completely destroyed, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said.
Because county jails are used as warehousing facilities for inmates awaiting trial, it is not likely that the dead had even been convicted of any crime, let alone crimes that carried the death penalty. The names of the dead had not been released Thursday.
At one point during the sheriff’s news conference on Thursday morning, a woman interrupted, saying her son was in the jail. She demanded to know what happened to her son. She said she had called hospitals and couldn’t get any information.
“My son has not been accounted for, how do you think family members are feeling that their kids haven’t been accounted for?” she said.
The sheriff told her the county had taken over jail operations last year, and directed her questions to them. The county took control of the jail and its 400 employees from the sheriff’s office Oct. 1 after a five-year federal investigation of the facility. According to the Pensacola News Journal, the investigation found that inadequate management of the jail had led to violations of the inmates’ rights. Problems included a low number of guards overseeing the inmates, which led to high levels of violence among the inmates, inadequate mental health care and a decades-long practice of segregating inmates by race. Morgan has been sheriff, an elected position, since 2009.
“I heard that they could smell the fumes. They should have been moved somewhere safe. They had fumes making them sick all day,” said Cheryl Dale, a relative of a victim.
At the blast site, pieces of glass and brick were strewn about on the ground. The front of the building appeared bowed out, with cracks throughout. Authorities blocked off roads leading to the jail.
I have been to the jail site only once, the day after Derek King was released from prison in 2009. My dominant memory is that the entire campus was a bleak and depressing site, which merely reinforced my feelings about Florida justice.
As we look forward to rebuilding the jail, it is probably asking too much that the next facility will be any better than the one which was destroyed. I don’t expect much from Florida, and Pensacola in particular. As this incident and its aftermath illustrate, Florida is quick to imprison people but slow to see to their welfare once they are is custody.
It makes for bad karma for years to come.
Groove of the Day