Activists want specifics as officials say prisoners still being held within Piney Point evacuation zone are safe

Four groups will hold a joint protest in Palmetto on Tuesday.

click to enlarge Activists want specifics as officials say prisoners still being held within Piney Point evacuation zone are safe
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On Tuesday, April 6, activists will hold a protest demanding the evacuation of 721 prisoners still being held at Manatee Central County jail, which sits in a mandatory evacuation zone near the leaking Piney Point phosphate mine.

Since Sunday, calls against the situation of the prisoners, along with 100 staff members working at the prison, have caught like wildfire on social media. The situation has now made national news. All of the residents surrounding the prison were mandatorily evacuated. On Easter Sunday morning, Manatee County said they would not be evacuating any prisoners, but by Sunday evening, after outcry from the community, officials moved 345 prisoners to a still-undisclosed site.

Tuesday’s demonstration will be co-led by members of Answer Suncoast, Florida Prisoner Solidarity, The Party For Socialism and Liberation and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. It will be held outside the evacuation zone just 3.6 miles from the prison at the corner of US-41 and Moccasin Wallow Road in Palmetto at 5:30 p.m.

Junior Salazar’s uncle is still inside the jail and he is deeply worried about his health and survival. Salazar decided to start putting together the event this past weekend as news about the situation spread.

“This is about more than these people being inmates, this is about that fact that they are human beings first,” Salazar told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. 

Salazar says officials are responding to the activists' concerns by telling them prisoners are not in harm’s way and that the flooding could not reach the second floor where the prisoners have been moved to, but Salazar and others ask: What about the air quality if toxic water enters the prison? Are there evacuation plans and how can people be sure that prisoners and staff will be safe inside a toxic, flooded prison?

During a press conference Saturday, Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Sauer said, “MSO (Manatee Sheriff’s Office) coordinated a transport of inmates from the jail, to an undisclosed location nearby. They have been transported and they are safe.” He didn’t mention the remaining 721 prisoners, and reporters at the press conference did not inquire as to the nature of their safety.

When CL asked about the safety of the remaining prisoners and staff in the jail, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Randy Warren said that deputies are working on getting an additional 34 inmates awaiting prison sentences (currently on hold for COVID-19 protocols) transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections.

“As an added precaution we have the ability to move another 200 inmates to another facility if needed,”  Warren wrote in an email. “Sheriff Rick Wells and staff are still in constant communication with officials on the situation, and are feeling better with the progress to drain the stack. In the event of a collapse we expect only about a foot of water making it onto jail property.”

Activists argue that the estimation of a foot of water is an unreliable estimation, because the jail is so close to the flood zone of the phosphate mine. 

But if it were true that only a foot of toxic water would enter the prison, what is the specific plan to evacuate prisoners? And, are there backup generators at the prison in the event that there is a power loss? These questions were not responded to by Warren. He also did not respond to the questions about the specifics of classifications of inmates who were evacuated and those who were not. And the question of why the location they were transferred to is undisclosed.

CL asked the Manatee County Department of Health if they have confirmed to the Sheriff’s office that any amount of wastewater flooding the jail would be acceptable for prisoner’s health.

“DOH-Manatee is monitoring the Piney Point situation closely, alongside Manatee Public Safety, and is prepared to advise MPS and the public on appropriate measures to take should the situation put human health and safety at risk,” said Christopher Tittel, Communications Director for Florida Department of Health Manatee County.

For Salazar and other activists, the vague answers and seeming lack of concern for prisoners' health is unacceptable. 

“We want to hold local officials accountable for everything that could happen during this event to prisoners, and what the effects could be afterwards,” he says.

UPDATED 04/06/21 1:15 p.m. Updated Christopher Tittel's title to Communications Director for Florida Department of Health Manatee County.

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