19 prison staffers treated for potential drug exposure after deaths of inmates

2 inmates dead of suspected overdose at Columbia Correctional Institution Annex

By Lauren Verno - Consumer investigative reporter, Maggie Lorenz - Multi-media journalist

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Fla. - Nineteen staff members were treated, an inmate was hospitalized and two other inmates died after a suspected drug-related incident at the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

According to a news release from the agency, three inmates were found unresponsive from a suspected overdose about 3:15 p.m. Saturday, and security and medical staff immediately responded to initiate life-saving measures. Two of those inmates died Saturday and the third inmate, who was hospitalized, was in stable condition as of Monday, the agency said. 

RELATED: 2 inmates die of suspected overdose at Florida prison

The state Department of Corrections told News4Jax on Monday that the 19 staff members, who included security and medical staffers, were evaluated at an outside hospital for treatment of symptoms related to potential drug exposure. As of Sunday, they had all been released from the hospital. 

Richard Pari, who worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told News4Jax that whatever drug it was, it was very powerful. 

"To me, it sounds like it could be fentanyl. I'm not 100% sure on that, but that is consistent of fentanyl coming in contact through the exposure of skin," said Pari.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that's 50 times stronger than heroin. News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said people don't have to ingest fentanyl to experience its effects. 

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the lead agency investigating the deaths of the inmates and the department's Office of Inspector General is assisting.

“At this time, our focus is on the health and swift recovery of the officers and individuals involved. The facility has been placed on lockdown while we provide FDLE with everything they need to investigate this incident,” said Michelle Glady, communications director for the state Department of Corrections.

Visitation was canceled Sunday at Columbia Correctional Institution. The FDOC said Monday in the news release that it is taking measures to ensure the prison can resume normal operations and that staff members can be kept safe. The agency added it hoped to resume normal visitations as soon as possible.

On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Jacksonville, where he announced several initiatives that encourage financial technology companies to start, relocate and expand in Florida. Once the scripted portion of the event was over, the governor did not take any questions, but News4Jax tried to ask about the suspected overdoses at the prison as he was leaving.

"I have not gotten an update from my office yet," DeSantis replied.

The overdoses occurred in the annex portion of the Columbia Correctional Institution, which is a separate building from the main one. The annex and the main building are run as two distinct prisons, but they are part of the same property. 

According to the FDOC, 20 people have died in the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex since 2014. Three of those were homicides and six were accidental deaths, which is what an overdose is categorized as. Those numbers do not include the two deaths over the weekend. 

Columbia Correctional Institution has seen a host of problems over the years. In September 2018, four inmates were hospitalized after violence broke out. In 2014, according to investigators, two inmates brought a gun in and shot themselves with the intent to sue the prison. In 2012, Corrections Sgt. Ruben Thomas was stabbed to death by an inmate.

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