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Explosion at Florida Jail Kills Two Prisoners as Officials Negotiate Reforms for Unconstitutional Conditions

Explosion at Florida Jail Kills Two Prisoners as Officials Negotiate Reforms for Unconstitutional Conditions

by David Reutter

As negotiations continued between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Escambia County, Florida officials over correcting major deficiencies at the county’s Central Booking and Detention Facility, the jail was rocked by an explosion caused by a natural gas leak. Two prisoners were killed and scores injured in the late-night April 30, 2014 blast.

“It’s pretty much complete destruction inside this facility,” said Sheriff David Morgan. “It was a huge explosion.”

The blast occurred near the jail’s booking area, according to county spokeswoman Kathleen Castro, who told reporters shortly after the incident that the ceiling and part of a wall had collapsed, causing extensive damage. She said around 600 prisoners were in the facility at the time and nearby hospitals reported treating more than 150 patients, most with non-life-threatening injuries, though in addition to the two fatalities one guard was paralyzed. A total of 184 people were injured.

The explosion occurred as DOJ and county officials were negotiating the terms of a proposed settlement to require the jail to correct what a five-year investigation determined were systematic deficiencies and routine violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights.

The county commissioners had assumed control of the jail from Sheriff Morgan on October 1, 2013 and agreed to take responsibility for the DOJ’s findings as negotiations continued on how to resolve the issues uncovered by the federal investigation.

Justice Department officials delivered the proposed settlement to the county in late December 2013, outlining the steps the jail must take to bring it into compliance. Among the major changes were new policies, procedures and training designed to address what the investigators called an “appalling” level of violence at the facility that was directly linked to inadequate staffing.

The DOJ called on the county to fill all guard vacancies at the jail by hiring additional staff in each of the next three years. Altogether, the proposed settlement required an additional 100 workers; of those, 30 were to be hired in 2014 according to county budget chief Amy Lovoy. The county had already hired nine staffers and eliminated compensatory time as a way of rewarding guards for overtime, she said, thereby reducing the staff shortage.

The proposed settlement also required measures to ensure the jail remains desegregated. In a long-standing practice discontinued by Sheriff Morgan in February 2013, investigators found that most black prisoners were housed together in units separate from white prisoners.

Additionally, the DOJ’s investigative report, released in May 2013, cited “numerous incidents over the years involving prisoners who have suffered serious harms,” which demonstrated “obvious systematic failures in the areas of prisoner safety and mental health services.”

Gross understaffing was cited as the reason for “obvious and serious risks to safety” and an “unacceptably high level of prisoner-on-prisoner violence” because the jail suffered from a lack of guards “to patrol housing units, conduct important security functions, and appropriately staff critical areas” at the facility.

For example, between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013 the jail reported 176 incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence with 20 resulting in serious head and eye injuries. Given the conditions, the jail was “lucky no inmates have been murdered by other inmates,” remarked one investigator.

The jail installed cameras in an effort to address the security issues, but the DOJ report noted that “Unfortunately, cameras alone cannot solve the problem. At best, cameras can record fights; they cannot stop them.” The DOJ cited four incidents over a six-week period in which prisoners were severely hurt as a guard watched on camera, or where the assault occurred in a camera’s “blind spot.”

DOJ investigators faulted the lack of staff for crippling the jail’s ability to conduct a sufficient number of cell searches, which, under generally accepted corrections standards, “should routinely occur in each housing unit every shift.” The jail’s data revealed only 41 cell searches for an entire year.

Negotiations also continued between the county and the DOJ on steps to correct deficiencies in mental health care at the facility. The proposed settlement included a requirement that within four hours of booking, all incoming prisoners must be screened by “qualified medical or mental health staff” to determine their mental health status and risk of suicide. The DOJ also wanted mental health assessments for prisoners within 10 days, or sooner for those with urgent mental health needs.

Further, the proposed settlement included requirements that the jail guarantee mental health staff are available on a 24-hour-per-day basis, with at least two psychiatrists available during any given week. The settlement also called on the county to ensure adequate communication between mental health professionals and jail staff by adopting new policies, procedures and training.

“We agree we need to increase mental health staffing,” said County Attorney Allison Rogers. “The combination of what credentials is what we’re looking at.” She added that negotiations with the DOJ included the exact number of mental health professionals the county needed to hire for the facility.

Local officials said they were hopeful that inadequate mental health care could also be addressed by establishing a mental health court, designed to provide court-supervised treatment to eligible offenders in lieu of jail time.

The DOJ investigation had revealed systematic deficiencies in the jail’s mental health treatment, including failure to adequately staff its mental health care program, failure to provide appropriate medications to mentally ill prisoners, inadequate housing policies and practices, and an absence of effective oversight.

The jail had only one part-time psychiatrist and relied on “heavily unsupervised trainees to screen and evaluate prisoners for mental illness.” Most of the approximately 25 daily mental health care sick call requests never got “past the trainee to see an actual mental health care professional,” the DOJ report noted.

Moreover, prisoners with serious mental health conditions were typically subjected to a “harmful form of solitary confinement” in observation cells that were not in direct line of sight of guards and not suicide resistant. On average, the DOJ determined, the jail sent roughly one prisoner per month to the hospital for a self-inflicted injury.

In one incident cited in the report, a prisoner who was admitted to the jail in 2012 and screened by an intern was found to have a history of schizophrenia with auditory and visual hallucinations. Although the prisoner also had a history of suicide attempts the intern placed him in the jail’s general population, where he remained despite later being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by a psychiatrist.

Nine days after he was admitted to the jail, the DOJ report said, the prisoner attempted to hang himself. One year later he was still housed in general population.

The April 30, 2014 explosion at the jail shifted the focus of local officials from settlement negotiations with the DOJ to the aftermath of the blast. The county announced in July 2014 that it planned to rebuild the Central Booking and Detention Facility at a different location; following the explosion all the prisoners were moved to other facilities, including in other counties. The new jail will cost an estimated $77 million.

Up to 24 hours before the explosion, which occurred in the facility’s basement, both prisoners and staff members said they had reported smelling gas. At the time of the blast the basement was flooded and the jail did not have electricity due to heavy rain.

“We talked among ourselves. We told different [guards] that were working,” said prisoner Jennifer Humphrey, referring to the gas fumes. “They really just ignored it.”

“My clients had no choice but to wait at the mercy of someone else’s decisions and wait for disaster to happen,” stated attorney Scott Barnes, who represents 40 prisoners who suffered injuries from the explosion. Lawsuits are expected.

In November 2014, an Escambia County grand jury declined to pursue criminal charges related to the explosion; the State Attorney’s Office had requested an investigation based on claims that jail officials took no action despite reports of a strong gas smell prior to the blast. The grand jury also made several recommendations, including returning control of the facility to the sheriff. Separate investigations were conducted by the state fire marshal and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The two prisoners killed in the explosion were identified as David Paul Weinstein, 45, and Robert Earl Simmons, 54. Jail guard Chris Hankinson, who was paralyzed from the waist down, was awarded a Purple Heart by the sheriff’s office in February 2015. Doctors reportedly told him it was unlikely he would ever walk again.


Sources:,,,, USA Today,


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