TALLAHASSEE – Florida's prison system, the third largest in the nation, has long faced issues with contraband drugs, yet the state agency that grapples with the problems does not track the number of inmates treated for overdoses.
Department of Corrections officials say they deem the health and well-being of prisoners a priority and that the system has protocols to provide inmates with "proper medical treatment" when they overdose.
But the department has not tracked how many inmates have required treatment as a result of overdoses during the past three years, according to Rob Klepper, the agency's press secretary.
Correctional officers, however, file reports for any incident that happens inside a prison, said Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. That includes inmates overdosing, a scenario that Baiardi said is a "nightmare" for officers.
"Usually it's not one outbreak. It's usually that something got snuck in and you got three or four inmates using it and they are all reacting differently," Baiardi told The News Service of Florida in an interview.
A synthetic cannabinoid, known as K2 or "twak," is one of the drugs that is most frequently confiscated by staff, Baiardi said.
When inmates consume "twak," they can get extremely aggressive, he said. They can also have seizures or pass out on the floor and sometimes lose memory of the episodes.
"Eventually it wears off," Baiardi said. "But there's some deaths from this, too."
On the afternoon of Sept. 16, two inmates died at the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex from suspected drug overdoses, prison officials said. Because the case remains under investigation, officials would not name the type of drug consumed.
And in a secretly filmed video, shot by an inmate at Martin Correctional Institution and leaked to the Miami Herald, scenes appear to capture widespread drug use inside state prisons, including cases where inmates are "twaking" and left unconscious or convulsing.
"You know you might not wake up one day if you smoke that," Scott Whitney, the inmate who shot the video with a contraband cell phone, said in the video.
Whitney's comment on inmates using drugs they know could be deadly has stayed with Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
He said inmates need to assume some "personal responsibility" for the contraband drug problem in the prison system, adding the blame is not just on staff members and the state agency's policies.
"We can try everything. We can try to stop the drugs from coming in and we can crack down on the staff and the people that are smuggling drugs," Puckett said.
But at some point, he said, "it can't just be laid at the feet of the government and the employees of the department. Some of it has to be a change in the mindset of the people that are willing to ingest that stuff."
When asked about the video, the Department of Corrections said in a statement to the News Service that "the department uses every tool at their disposal to mitigate violence and contraband within our institutions" and that "correctional officers are diligent in their efforts to search inmates and common areas to eradicate weapons and remove dangerous and illegal contraband."
Some of the agency's tools include body scanners to detect drugs ingested by inmates and a recently approved law that bans potentially contraband-carrying drones from flying over and near state and private correctional facilities.
But some people argue that clear data is also needed to know how to fix the problems.
Greg Newburn, policy director in Florida for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, suggested state lawmakers should explore ways to require the corrections department to better trace incident-report data, which could help the Legislature know more about specific problems such as overdoses.
"We don't know what we don't know," Newburn said.
When asked why the department did not track data on overdoses over the last three years, Keppler provided a statement: "This is a subject the department takes very seriously. Ongoing institutional awareness and updates provide staff the information they need to track and address trends or upticks in incidents of concern, including overdose cases, at the institution level."
House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, told the News Service that he would be interested in exploring ways for the agency to have a more efficient system of tracking trends and incidents. Perhaps that can be done by modernizing the data system with standardized digital forms, he said.
But while he thinks data collection is important to pinpoint problems, he said an array of issues are already fueling a "crisis" in the department.
"The house is on fire, and we are talking about what color to paint it," Grant said.
Ahead of the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has asked the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee for more money in next year's budget.
Inch said the agency has been dealing with years of funding shortfalls and needs the Legislature's help to reduce staff vacancy rates and inmate "violence, addiction, idleness and recidivism."
"Increasing staffing is key," Baiardi said. "If you keep overworking these officers and you don't have a very good inmate-to-officer ratio, you're just asking for more problems."