Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Toxic floodwaters threatened a Florida jail. Nearly 800 were locked inside.

A protest in solidarity with those in Manatee County Jail during the emergency in April. (Photo by Bryan Ellis, Party for Socialism and Liberation)

Many rural jails and prisons face environmental pollution and flooding, but they aren’t often considered in emergency planning.

Editor’s note: Some names have been changed or left out to protect the identity of people who’ve been incarcerated in the Manatee County Jail. 

Jennifer watched pandemonium unfold outside the window of her cell at the Manatee County Jail in Florida on the evening of Sunday, April 4. Drones hovered, dozens of police cars sped back and forth down the road. Jail staff moved their personal vehicles to higher ground and led livestock from the jail’s work farm onto trailers. 

A wastewater reservoir covering stacks of phosphogypsum—a radioactive byproduct from manufacturing phosphate rock for fertilizer—was leaking at Piney Point, a defunct fertilizer plant nearby. It threatened to inundate nearly eight square miles of land in Manatee County, a sparsely populated area near Tampa Bay. The county jail is in the mandatory evacuation zone for the plant—if the dam holding the water back collapsed, some models predicted up to 10 feet of water on jail property. 

While Jennifer—who is using only her first name to protect her identity—and more than 1,000 other incarcerated people waited for answers in lockdown, jail personnel prepared for a looming disaster. “We kept seeing them move the cows,” she said. “But they didn’t move any of us.”

Through interviews and correspondence with six people incarcerated in the Manatee County Jail at the time of the emergency, four of their friends and family members, Manatee County Sheriff’s Department officials, and a review of public records, Southerly pieced together a narrative of what happened inside the jail this April when toxic water threatened to rush inside. 

Only 267 men—a quarter of the jail’s population—were eventually evacuated. The rest,  including Jennifer and another 133 women, as well as 17 kids being tried as adults, remained on lockdown inside. 

From tropical storms to COVID-19, Florida authorities have in some cases failed to keep incarcerated people safe. Nationwide, there is no set standard for how carceral institutions should plan for emergencies, or how they should be incorporated into wider emergency planning efforts. With many jails and prisons constructed away from town centers—as factories and industrial plants often are—environmental concerns incarcerated people face are out of sight—and out of their control.

“We’re all facing the threats of climate change and technological hazards,” said David Pellow,  Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a prominent researcher on environmental justice and incarceration. “We’re just asking for folks who are incarcerated to be included in that disaster planning and preparation.”

The Piney Point phosphate plant, now defunct, houses water reservoirs covering stacks of phosphogypsum. (Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)

The Piney Point plant was named for a waterfront town established in 1914, advertised as the only point between neighboring cities “where the pine woods come squarely up to the waters of the bay.” The plant opened in the 1960s, and newspaper archives from the 1980s and 90s trace the site’s history through multiple owners, bankruptcies, lawsuits, and investigations into illegal dumping. The plant’s emissions damaged trees and crops, sulfuric acid spills gave multiple residents chemical pneumonia, and employees died in preventable workplace accidents. The site discharged waste into the ocean several times throughout the last two decades. 

It stopped processing phosphate in 1999. Since the solid phosphogypsum cannot be destroyed or reused, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, requires it to remain in piles called stacks—there are 25 in Florida—and covered in water. The water surrounding the radon-emitting phosphogypsum is acidic, foul-smelling, and contains heavy metals and known carcinogens, raising concerns for local environmental groups

One of the reservoirs at Piney Point also contains dredged material from Tampa Bay. Documents from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or FDEP, from 2019 to 2021 show reports of liner tears, stress fractures and seepage at the reservoirs, which could leak and potentially contaminate groundwater. An inspection in October 2020 found 11 areas of weakness in the liner of one of the reservoirs.

Since the plant closed, it has changed hands several times; currently the owner is HRK Holdings, which declared bankruptcy years ago. On Aug. 5, FDEP filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging “HRK is incapable of operating the facility in compliance with Florida’s environmental laws and the standards, permits, and agreements related to the management of the property.” However, critics say the state also missed warning signs and is also to blame.

On March 25, HRK reported to state environmental regulators that one of the reservoirs at Piney Point was leaking. Contaminated water oozed through a tear in its thick plastic liner, compromising the sediment beneath it. The site manager and crew worked in vain to control the breach, but, within days, environmental engineers reported that the structure had shifted 10 to 12 feet, and its eastern wall had become unstable. If it failed, the stack of phosphogypsum could collapse. 

Over a week later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency, and the county issued mandatory evacuation orders for over 300 homes. Alerts hit cell phones and TVs: “Evacuate area NOW. Collapse of Piney Point Stack Imminent.”

At press conferences and on social media, activists and politicians asked questions about the jail. But no representatives from the sheriff’s department briefed the public, though county commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in an email that “the sheriff totally makes all decisions regarding evacuation of the jail.”

Scott Hopes, the acting county administrator, said the medical unit and all personnel in the jail had been relocated to the second floor, more than 10 feet above ground level, and that sandbags had been placed around the first. Citing information from the sheriff’s department, numerous press outlets reported that everyone incarcerated in the jail had been moved upstairs. 

Randy Warren, public information officer for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, later acknowledged that this move never happened for most incarcerated people, adding that those with medical needs were prioritized and moved to the second floor. 

Inundation map used to make evacuation decisions. (Map courtesy Manatee County)

Stephanie, who was also incarcerated at the jail during the emergency, said she and others missed medications, had to use a basin to wash, and worried about losing access to food in the event of a flood. Two people with loved ones in the jail said staff repeatedly claimed the media and concerned family members were exaggerating. Jennifer heard the same. “They wouldn’t say very much,” she said of the jail officials. “Just that it’s all a joke.” Warren denied this claim, saying staff worked to keep people calm.

A man named Kurt—who has since been released and asked to use only his nickname for fear of retribution—said that men in his pod were told to pack up their things and take a COVID-19 test. They returned to their pods to wait, though sleep was difficult without their sheets or blankets. Around 4 a.m. on April 5, the men boarded vans.“It was honestly a really scary ride with the speed and darkness,” Kurt wrote in a letter to Southerly in June. “Especially when every time we hit bumps in the road we all [thought] the dam broke and the water was hitting us.”

Warren said that “​like all inmate relocations, this was done at the appropriate time and without prior notification to the general public or the inmates involved.”

Joe—who is using a pseudonym to protect his identity—has been held in the Manatee County Jail since 2019. He was on lockdown in the high-security wing in April, and estimates 18 hours passed before a deputy came by, telling them a nearby dam might give out, and “radioactive” water could flood the jail. They remained on lockdown for four days, with a brief break—not enough time to call his wife or shower.

Jail officials said, in the worst case scenario, one to two feet of water would reach jail property, but some models predicted up to six or even 10 feet. By the time reports showed a diminished flood risk, county and jail officials had already completed their evacuation plans. Warren said the reports of danger to the jail were overblown.

However, some incarcerated people said they thought they might drown, and that they never received protective equipment or evacuation instructions for a potential disaster scenario. Although the jail was never inundated with water—by April 6, authorities declared that the risk of a catastrophic breach had passed— experts point to a larger issue within U.S. prisons and jails: No one is considering incarcerated people in disaster planning. 

“I would make an argument that we were endangered,” said Joe. “What about the experience that [we] had? Isn’t that worth something?”

Protesters pressed the jail to evacuate people in April. (Photo by Bryan Ellis, Party for Socialism and Liberation)

Billed as a growth engine for small towns, carceral institutions promised jobs as domestic manufacturing dwindled through the late 20th century. Meanwhile, decommissioned manufacturing facilities languished beside them. In the case of rural jails like the one in Manatee County, proximity to these plants poses an additional risk. 

Jails and prisons are often built “far away from population centers” because they’re considered “locally unwanted land uses,” said Pellow. Many people prefer jails and prisons, like landfills, pipelines, and factories, to be “out of sight, out of mind,” he said. Manatee County Jail is built in an industrial area near Port Manatee. It’s surrounded by several other industrial sites, including an airport and a scrapyard. 

Environmental crises can also magnify the existing inequities of incarceration. Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, who are already more likely to die from environmental causes and live near environmental hazards. Data requested by Southerly revealed that, in 2020, 35% of prisoners in the Manatee County Jail were Black, though Black people make up 9.3% of the county. The disparity is even larger in Florida prisons.

A growing jail and prison population makes full evacuations difficult. Florida prisons experience chronic overcrowding, operating at over 100% capacity even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over time, Florida’s incarceration rates have steadily risen, alongside new and larger prisons and jails. The Manatee County Jail operates close to capacity; some incarcerated people told Southerly they were staying in overcrowded cells. 

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells told the Bradenton Herald that fully evacuating a jail that size “is never going to happen.” Warren said that outside facilities “aren’t necessarily opening the doors to take in other inmates,” so it can be difficult to find somewhere to evacuate to, especially when following COVID-19 protocols. “It’s not like a resort, or a school or something like that,” he told Southerly. “These are people who are there for very obvious reasons.”

Google Earth image of Manatee County Jail and the Piney Point plant.

An ACLU petition to evacuate the jail filed on April 6 noted that approximately 400 people were being held in the jail due only to their inability to pay bond. 

The Manatee County sheriff’s office expressed confidence in the building’s ability to weather a flood. The jail is rated as a safe shelter for up to a Category 4 hurricane, Warren said; it was used by some staff as a shelter during Hurricane Irma in 2017. It has up-to-date emergency plans, he added, but declined to provide more details due to “security risks.” 

Manatee County isn’t the only jail in Florida that’s at risk of disaster. In 2014, record-breaking rains rushed into the Escambia County Jail’s basement, lifting gas-powered dryers off the floor and disconnecting gas lines. It sparked an explosion, killing two people and injuring more than 180. Prisoners had complained about the gas odor for days beforehand. The jail was later rebuilt on slightly higher land across the street.

During Hurricane Michael in 2018, the Apalachee Correctional Institution in the Florida Panhandle was not evacuated. The Florida Times Union reported on the massive damage the facility had incurred during the storm and the deterioration of conditions inside in the weeks following: mold, supply shortages, downed phones, contaminated food. 

Tracey Washington’s son was incarcerated at the Manatee County Jail in April. She watched the news from her Bradenton home as a subdivision near the jail was evacuated. As the leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s Manatee chapter, Washington is on the front lines of the fight for justice for currently and formerly incarcerated people. She was struck by the difference between the treatment of people outside and inside the jail.

“I feel like that was very inhumane when you’re evacuating individuals close to their location, and then you’re not evacuating them,” she said. “If something like this occurs again, how are we going to handle it?”

Jenn Hayes is a graduate student at the University of Florida who writes about environment, justice, and community. She is particularly interested in how rural environments shape and are shaped by incarceration. You can reach her at jennhayes@gmail.com or on Twitter @jennlhay.