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Most Florida prison deaths from natural causes, accidents

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state has launched more than 900 investigations into deaths in Florida prisons over a five-year span, with causes ranging from overdoses to homicides, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement official said Wednesday. More than 50 percent of the investigations -- 488 out of 924 -- involved deaths from natural causes or accidents, according to Jennifer Cook Pritt, an assistant commissioner with FDLE.

"Most inmate accidental deaths were due to drug overdoses," Pritt told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

But Pritt noted a steep decline in the number of inmates who died from natural or accidental causes. For example, in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the agency investigated 163 cases of natural and accidental deaths, compared to 68 cases during the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the criminal-justice panel, said a potential reason for the decline is that inmates are increasingly more fearful of using synthetic drugs that are illegally snuck into prisons. He said one of the drugs that is most commonly used by inmates is known as K2, which Brandes said is "essentially a cigarette sprayed with purple raid." ​​​​​​​He suspects inmates are becoming more aware that using such drugs could lead to death.

"Whether it shows up in a drug test or not, they are potentially facing a death sentence," Brandes said.

A report presented to the Senate panel showed a variety of causes of deaths, including inmate-on-inmate assaults and suicides. Pritt said the number of investigations classified as inmate homicides doubled from nine to 18 between the 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 fiscal years. Brandes said the uptick could be attributed to having more gang-related activity behind bars.

"It's something we need to actively monitor," he said. While Pritt said the agency has "absolutely seen cases that are gang-related," she could not say that such activity was driving the increase.

FDLE has an agreement with the corrections department to investigate deaths. That agreement expires in February, but it is likely to be renewed, Brandes said.