Attacks, inmate death raise questions about prison system

Department of Corrections denies staffing issues led to attack on officer

By Scott Johnson - Reporter

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Fla. - An inmate who was in protective custody was found dead at the Columbia Correctional Institution on Tuesday, a day after a corrections officer was hospitalized in an attack, sources told News4Jax.

The inmate was identified by the Florida Department of Corrections as Jason Rodriguez.

A DOC spokesman issued a statement Tuesday, saying the FDLE is investigating the death.

"The department will employ all available resources to ensure that a thorough investigation is completed," the statement said.

The officer injured Monday, identified by several News4Jax sources as Shane Biancaniello, was airlifted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville with non-life-threatening injuries after he was stabbed in the head and neck.

News4Jax has learned that an inmate also assaulted a corrections officer over the weekend at the Baker County re-entry facility.

News4Jax is investigating whether the attacks and the death are an indication of a bigger problem in Florida’s prison system.

Critics of the system say it’s overcrowded and understaffed, but the Department of Corrections said understaffing had nothing to do with the most recent attacks.

Even so, the attack Monday at the prison in Columbia County had the family of a corrections officer who was murdered in 2012 saying changes need to be made.

Sgt. Ruben Thomas was stabbed in the neck with a handmade weapon and died at the facility.

“I had an awful feeling (Monday) thinking there’s going to be another family having to go through what we went through, and it broke my heart,” Thomas' mother, Paula Thomas, said.

Another officer was struck in the head by an inmate over the weekend at the Baker County re-entry facility, and a Miami newspaper reporter who has been covering prisons in Florida for years said an inmate in Columbia County who was in protective custody died Tuesday morning.

“There have been questions raised about whether they have adequate staffing at the prison,” Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie Brown said.

Brown said the prisons in Florida are overcrowded and the corrections officers are overworked and understaffed.

“From what I understand from my sources there, they are forced to work these 16-hour shifts and under the threat that if they don’t work these long hours, they will be written up,” Brown said.

But the DOC said manpower didn’t have anything to do with the officer who was attacked in Columbia County on Monday. 

“The individual had five or six other corrections officers able to respond,” a spokesperson said. “They were on top of it almost as soon as it was going on.”

Ruben Thomas' family estimated the ratio of inmates to corrections officers at about 200 to 2. Sources told News4Jax Tuesday that the family's estimate is fairly accurate.

DOC representatives admitted staffing is an issue in Florida prisons.

“I think they are trying to address it,” Brown said. “It’s been very difficult to do so, because the Legislature decided they weren’t going to give the department (money) to hire any more staff.”

Brown added that the Legislature decided it would be better to reduce the prison population than to hire additional staff.

But she said it's not up to the prisons but the courts to reduce the prison population, which hasn’t happened.

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