While being locked up is not a pleasant experience no matter where you are, Florida has a reputation for being home to some of the worst prisons in the country. Problems like corruption, gang violence, low-paid staff, and poor working conditions all contribute to high rates of violence inside Florida Prisons.
Inmates also have to contend with severe overcrowding. Florida ranks sixth in prison admission rates, and the number of prisoners has risen over 250% since 1983. These statistics are even starker for inmates of color, who are incarcerated at 3.6 times the rate of their white counterparts. Women’s imprisonment rates are also on the rise in Florida, up over 700% since 1980 (Vera).
Add in for-profit private prisons, budget cuts, and COVID-19 and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Some Florida prisons face additional issues like lack of air conditioning, abusive guards, and covert drug use. Continue reading to learn more about the 8 worst prisons in Florida.
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1. Union Correctional Institution
Formerly known as the Florida State Prison, the Union Correctional Institution is one of the worst prisons in the Sunshine State. Built in 1913, it is the state’s first and largest prison.
Union Correctional Institution started as a prison farm, and convicts were required to complete routine duties on the 18,000-acre property. Although inmates were compensated for their work, complaints of brutal treatment by the guards were reported almost immediately after the prison opened.
While much has changed over time, including the size, buildings, and population, mistreatment of inmates by staff is unfortunately not a thing of the past. Reports of racist guards are not uncommon, along with complaints of excessive use of force and unlawful extreme isolation. The violence goes both ways, as there have also been cases of inmates killing correctional officers.
The Union Correctional Institution houses inmates at a range of security levels including Community, Minimum, Medium, Closes, and Maximum. The state’s execution chamber is also located here, along with all the male prisoners placed on death row. One of the most famous convicts to meet his demise at the Union Correctional Institution was the infamous Ted Bundy – executed in 1989.
2. Martin Correctional Institution
When clandestine footage was taped by an inmate in 2019, Martin Correctional Institution rose to fame as one of the worst prisons in Florida. The prison is located in southeast Florida in Indiantown and was opened in 1985. Today it is the third-largest prison in the state with a maximum capacity of just over 1,500 inmates.
The 3-minute video filmed by inmate Scott Whitney depicts daily life at Martin Correctional Institution. Some of the most graphic scenes show violence between inmates, drug use and overdoses, and inadequate medical care for sick and injured inmates. The video also shows unsanitary cooking facilities with rats and mold, alcohol and drug use, and an astounding lack of security protocols.
Above all else, a sense of neglect by correctional officers is palpable. If you choose to watch the video (distributed with the help of the Miami Herald), viewer discretion is strongly advised.
3. Columbia Correctional Institution
Columbia Correctional Institution is located just outside of Lake City in northern Florida. The prison was opened in 1992 and has a reputation for being one of the worst prisons in the entire state.
Inmates are placed into one of six security levels, including Community, Minimum, Medium, and Close. The maximum capacity sits at 1,427, with its nearby sister prison Columbia Annex housing an additional 1,566 inmates.
While it is often hard to pinpoint where troubles with the prison started, in 2012 a correctional officer was stabbed to death by an inmate. Another stabbing followed in 2016, along with the death of a schizophrenic inmate who was being held in protective custody.
The same year, state representative David Richardson toured the prison and talked with the prisoners. Many inmates brought up issues with the poor facilities in which they were living, and at the end of his visit, Richardson deemed the prison “unfit for human habitation”.
Unfortunately, little has changed since the representative’s visit, and stories of death and violence continue to plague the prison. In 2018 an inmate was brutally murdered by his cellmate, who proceeded to mutilate the body for unknown reasons. The same day, an armed gang fight broke out, though luckily no one was killed from this altercation.
Like many other prisons around the state and country, Columbia Correctional Institution was woefully unprepared to deal with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. This resulted in over 400 inmates testing positive in July of 2020, along with dozens of prison employees.
4. Santa Rosa Correctional Institution
Known around the state as one of the toughest, deadliest, and most dangerous prisons in Florida, you certainly don’t want to find yourself locked up in Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. The prison is located in the northwest panhandle of the state and has a maximum capacity of 1,614 inmates.
The bad reputation has been earned through countless inmate deaths, violent correctional officers, and an overall culture of abuse, racism, and cover-ups. Like the proverbial chicken and egg, it’s hard to say if the violence of the guards is due to the nature of the inmates or vice versa.
No matter the reasoning, it is impossible to deny the corruption of the correctional officers at Santa Rosa, and there have been numerous lawsuits filed against the prison over the years. Combine that with the normalization of covering up assaults against inmates and inhumane living conditions and you’ve got a recipe for one of the worst prisons in Florida.
5. Dade Correctional Institution
Another one of the worst prisons in Florida is the Dade Correctional Institution. The prison is located about 40 miles south of central Miami and opened in 1996.
While the prison has never had a great reputation, over the last decade controversies have been plaguing Dade Correctional Institution at a much higher rate. 2014 was especially violent and the news-worthy events here were frequent that year.
In May, a reporter with the Miami Herald wrote a series of stories about the violence and corruption at Florida prisons, specifically Dade Correctional Institution. The story detailed frequent complaints of poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners, unsanitary conditions in the kitchens, and more.
Later that year, a prisoner was murdered by guards after being thrown in the shower and then tortured with scalding hot water for hours. This was not the first time an inmate was subjected to this kind of treatment (there are at least 8 other inmates who claim similar experiences), though this was the first death.
Shortly after this incident, another prisoner was found dead from strangulation. Before his death, the inmate had voiced fear about his cellmate, who was eventually officially accused of the murder.
After so much turmoil, you would think that changes would have been put in place at Dade Correctional Institute. But unfortunately, problems continue into the present day, and in the summer of 2021, multiple correctional officers were criminally charged after accusations of smuggling contraband into the prison.
6. Charlotte Correctional Institution
Another one of the worst prisons in Florida is the Charlotte Correctional Institution, located in the southwestern part of the state. The prison opened in 1989 and can hold a maximum of 1,291 inmates across six different security levels.
The main thing that puts Charlotte Correctional on our list is the frequent occurrence of unexplained inmate deaths. A 2016 report on the death of Matthew Walker at the hands of the guards won the journalists a Pulitzer Prize and put the prison on the front page of the news. As of 2015, six other unexplained deaths at the prison have become part of an investigation at the Charlotte Correctional Institution.
Today, the prison remains in the news, most recently for the violent beating of an inmate that was caught on video.
Overcrowding is a newer issue that the prison has been facing. After the temporary closure of the nearby Fort Myers Work Camp outside of Fort Myers due to staffing issues, prisoners were transferred to Charlotte Correctional. The facility is beyond its maximum capacity, and inmates have been forced to sleep on the floor and live in crowded, unsanitary conditions.
7. Suwannee Correctional Institution
Suwannee Correctional Institution is one of Florida’s newest prisons. The facility is located in northern Florida, about halfway between Live Oak and Lake City. This maximum-security prison opened its doors in 2009 and can house just over 1,500 inmates.
As a newer prison, you may expect conditions at Suwannee Correctional to be in the top tier. But unfortunately, this prison is one of the worst in the state. In 2014, an FBI investigation was conducted after the mysterious death of an inmate.
According to a 2016 report from the inspector general, Suwannee had more use-of-force incidents per 100 inmates than any other prison in Florida.
In 2020, more than half of the inmates at Suwannee tested positive for COVID-19, and issues with overcrowding since then will likely exacerbate issues like this.
8. Lowell Prison
Situated in Marion County in central Florida, Lowell Prison is one of the worst in the state. This is one of the largest women’s prisons in the entire country, with a maximum capacity of nearly 3,000 inmates if you include the nearby annex.
When it first opened in 1956, the prison was the first and only women’s correctional institution in the state. While there have been many changes to the prison over the years, one thing has remained consistent – Lowell’s association with physical and sexual abuse of inmates and inhumane living facilities.
The Miami Herald reported on the issues facing the prison multiple times in both 2015 and 2017, in addition to dishing out harsh criticism of the state of Florida for not intervening in the horrible conditions at Lowell Prison.
Currently, the prison is under investigation for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September 2021, nearly half of all inmates have tested positive for the virus, and lack of medical care and issues with overcrowding have only made the issue worse.
This isn’t the first time that Lowell Prison has grappled with the outbreak of illness. In 2004, a tuberculosis outbreak infected several prisoners, but luckily there were no fatalities.