If prison inmates decide to escape while they're on work detail, the Florida Department of Corrections now has an automated alert system that local residents can register with to get instant information about the escape. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
JASPER – Communities that host Florida prisons and work camps get the benefit of the jobs that come from these facilities. At the same time, prisons can generate concern about what happens if an inmate escapes, and could potentially pose a threat to local residents.
The Florida Department of Corrections just launched a new program to ease those concerns. It’s an automated phone system designed to alert residents living near a state correctional facility when there’s a local emergency, including an escape from the nearest prison.
Instituted last week, the new ALERT Notification Service “will keep residents informed of prison escapes, and can also be used in other emergency situations, such as when an Amber or Silver Alert is issued,” DOC noted in a news release on this program.
DOC has established a toll-free hotline that Florida residents can call, 855-963-6229, to sign up for the alerts. They can also register their phone or fax number along with the facility’s zip code. Anyone who registers with this ALERT line will get detailed information about an escapee if one occurs, including a physical description of the inmate on the run, and the time of the escape.
For example, at the Polk Correctional Institute and the Polk Work Camp in Polk City, the zip code is 33868. At the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, the zip code is 32825. To register for information about either of these facilities, just type in the zip code.
That information about escapes and emergencies will come through automated calls to residents’ home or cell phone.
Ken Tucker, Florida’s DOC secretary, said this is a part of the department’s efforts to ensure that communities hosting a correctional institute stay safe.
“This continues our commitment to ensure the safety of citizens living near one of our facilities,” Tucker said. “We work very hard to keep our facilities safe for everyone. This new service makes it possible for us to alert citizens at a moment’s notice if problems arise.”
These automated notification messages are not limited to people who live close to a prison. The notifications can be sent to anyone across the state who registers to get the information. If someone signs up for the ALERT system and later moves, they can use the automated line to update their registration information.
Tucker said he also hopes that if there is an escape, residents who get these alerts can help DOC staff and local law enforcement find the inmate.
“The ALERT Notification Service will also benefit correctional facilities,” Tucker said. “As residents receive offender descriptions, they can be the additional eyes and ears that can help us locate a missing inmate.”
As Florida’s largest state agency, DOC employs more than 25,000 people statewide, and oversees more than 100,000 inmates. The agency notes that “escapes from the secure perimeter of a prison are rare, with the last one occurring in 2005.” But sometimes canine units from state correctional facilities have been called out to assist local law enforcement when someone on their way to jail or prison decides to make a last ditch effort to stay free. They can also be called out to help search for someone fleeing law enforcement, which is what happened recently in the town of Jasper on the Panhandle.
On March 30, the canine units from Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, and the canine Unit from Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak, got called out for a search, and ended up assisting the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in tracking down and capturing two men who had fled from local police and sheriff’s deputies.
Following a car chase that ended up with their vehicle crashing, the two men fled on foot. After an extensive chase through a residential area, Pierre Chapman got captured by a K-9 unit when he was found hiding behind a tree. He got charged with resisting arrest, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, possession of narcotic equipment, and possession of cocaine.
The second suspect, Javon Bell, was tracked for one quarter of a mile before he was found hiding in a creek bed, submerged in the mud and water. Bell was charged with resisting an officer without violence, willful and reckless driving, fleeing the scene of accident with property damage, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, possession of narcotics equipment, and possession of cocaine.
John Palmer, the warden of Hamilton CI, called the captures a “great job by K-9 Turbo and our K-9 handlers. The work performed by these brave men and women, who place their lives on the line each day, is beyond measure in terms of positive impact on the local community.”
Even as DOC develops ways to enhance public safety, the department is also closing down numerous prisons and work camps this year as a way to save money. DOC has insisted there is enough prison bed space available to meet Florida’s existing prison population, and that no inmate will be released early as a result of the closings.
The closures are expected to save the state nearly $15 million for the rest of this fiscal year, and almost $76 million in the next fiscal year, while 1,293 full-time jobs are being eliminated.
It’s a part of Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to eliminate $1 billion from the state’s prison budget.
Only three of the prisons being shut down are in Central Florida: Demilly CI in Polk City, Hillsborough CI in Riverview near Tampa, and Levy Forestry Camp, which was close to Ocala in neighboring Marion County.
Inmates at the facilities being closed are getting transferred to other prisons, and all the transfers will be completed by July 1.
Among the prisons recently closed were the Caryville Work Camp, the Gainesville Correctional Institution, the Hillsborough CI, the Levy Forestry Camp, the New River East CI, the New River O Unit, and River Junction Work Camp. These locations are officially closed and the inmates are no longer housed there.

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