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Potential Radioactive Exposure to Manatee County Jail Prisoners in Florida

In March 2021, inspectors at Piney Point discovered the structural integrity of the retaining wall holding back one billion tons of phosphate processing waste, phosphogypsum. Phosphogypsum is dangerous because it contains radioactive by products left over from the fertilizer production process, such as uranium and radium. DeSantis issued a state of emergency due to the incident and its potential to create a “real catastrophic flood situation.” Evacuation orders were given on April 2 to 315 nearby homes in the surrounding counties. But, from MCCJ located directly across from U.S. Highway 41 from the phosphate plant, only 267 prisoners and detainees were evacuated of the over 700 living there. The rest were simply moved from the bottom floor of the jail to the second floor.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said that the county jail was prepared to handle any breach. He expected that if a breach did occur in this instance it would create less than a foot of flooding in the jail. Other Manatee County government officials stated that they accepted Wells’ evaluation and believed the situation under control. “At this time, I’m comfortable with the assurances the sheriff has made that inmates and staff are safe,” stated 12th Judicial Circuit state attorney Ed Brodsky.

Critics contend that many of the detainees were simply people who could not afford bail, seventeen of them juveniles. Cell occupants were doubled up so that eight people were sleeping in cell blocks designed to only hold four. Overcrowded conditions prevailed throughout the jail. Many of the detainees have not yet been convicted of a crime, such as Shannon Glaze who is awaiting charges on marijuana possession but cannot afford the $1,620 bail set for her case. Others are serving sentences for low-level misdemeanors or awaiting transport to prison.

Activist groups including the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), The Leaders Rights Organization, The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began protesting to secure the evacuation or release of all people held in the jail April 2, the day DeSantis signed a state of emergency.

Public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, Larry Eger, joined the ACLU in preparation for filing an emergency habeas petition requiring the release or relocation of the detainees and prisoners. The petition claimed that the unreasonable risk of serious harm violated their constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. “We thought it was conflicting,” said ACLU staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “You have a mandate from the county that it’s unsafe while at the same time it’s ostensibly perfectly safe to be in the jail that’s in the evacuation zone. Those ideas seem contradictory.”

The Center for Biological Diversity released a statement April 3 calling for action against the damage phosphate plants do to Florida’s ecology. The Director, Jaclyn Lopez, added that Piney Point’s current situation was “worsened by the fact that it was entirely foreseeable and preventable. With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than a billion tons of dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”

Sheriff Wells dismissed the severity of the breach. He called the lawsuit frivolous and made assurances that everyone in the county jail was safe. Commenting on the suit he said, “I guess they wanted to move (1066) inmates, which is never going to happen.”

ACLU staff attorney Jacqueline Azis responded to Wells’ statements, “The fact remains that the jail was in the mandatory evacuation zone, so whether it was going to be 20 feet or a couple of feet, flooding potential was there, even just a couple of feet of flooding presents a dangerous situation for the jail.” That the water in question would be radioactive and filled with toxic waste seemed to be a point lost on the government, at least when it came to exposing prisoners and jail staff to it.

The ACLU staff attorney representing the defendants in the county jail, Benjamin Stevenson said, “We’d like nothing more than realizing in a week—wow, we didn’t need to file this, nothing did happen. But the Constitution doesn’t require you to hope things happen. It requires you to take reasonable measures so that people are not facing unreasonable risks of serious harm.” The petition was voluntarily dismissed by the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court on April 12, 2021 when the flooding did not occur. The wisdom of caging people in and near toxic waste dumps does not appear to be questioned by the government, neither in Florida or the many other places it occurs nationally.

There is still major concern about the people left in the jail, especially the juveniles. “You would think they would be the first group to be evacuated,” said Eger of the juvenile population. He was also concerned about the 100 MCCJ staff still working during the crisis. They must enter the county jail from the first floor where the flooding may not be avoided.

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond when asked if the juveniles were separated from the adult population. Liability issues necessitate this arrangement. Assistant public defender Kiera Forlenza said, “The teens who were tried as adults are being held in the emergency zone from 14 to 17, with an estimated average age of 16.”

The same day the emergency petition was filed in court, DeSantis lifted the mandatory evacuation order. See: Glaze v. Wells, 12th Circuit, Case No: 2021 CA 1369. 


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