The warden of the Federal Correctional Institution at Marianna promises that the prison is going to stay here and that it will be “coming back stronger than ever” as full re-activation takes place later this year.

Warden Shannon D. Withers made that clear right away when he spoke at Friday’s FCI-Marianna Community Relations Board meeting. It was the first such session since Hurricane Michael heavily damaged the prison and forced the evacuation of inmates to other institutions around the country. There has been speculation and fear that the prison might not ever return to normal operations. Although he would not give a projected date for its full reactivation, he did say it is expected to occur sometime this calendar year.

Withers and other prison officials also made the point that the prison never actually closed completely for any appreciable time after the storm. It has been staffed to some level all along and a handful of prisoners have returned — about 143 minimum-security inmates that make up a storm-recovery work crew. Getting the full complement of some 1,216 prisoners back will signal the fact that the prison has been fully reactivated.

The federal prison in Marianna set precedent after Hurricane Michael tore the roofs off all its housing units, wrecked the grounds, and twisted its fencing until some of it fell to the ground. Winds gusts of 200 mph swept through the grounds during the worst of that Category 5 storm, officials said. The Community Relations Board saw a brief video taken at the window of the warden’s office as the storm bore down, and aerial still photographs of what the hurricane left it its wake — felled trees, building debris, and more.

Withers put his team to work building back what they could. For more than a year, correctional officers and many other staffers have voluntarily worked out-of-field in order to help their workplace recover.

At the meeting Friday, Withers praised them for their willingness to do that, and for the personal skills they brought to the task. Many already knew how to lay tile and make the numerous kinds of repairs that kept them busy over the last 15 months, Withers said, and were eager to put them to use for the sake of the prison.

Never before has the federal Board of Prisons had that happen, Withers said. His Planning Section Team has been invited by the BOP regional director to speak at an upcoming crisis management meeting to share their experiences with the 21 other prisons in the group.

His employees’ response to the storm impressed him from the start, he said. Immediately after the hurricane they had to move 1,219 inmates from there to other prisons. It was a formidable task that they finished in three days, starting at 8 a.m. on Oct. 11 and wrapping it up at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 13. The inmates were transferred to other states, including New Jersey, North Carolina, and Mississippi, and some wound up in Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee.

In addition to helping get the institution back in shape, staff members have also been doing two-week tours of duty at other prisons, performing their regular types of jobs while they’re at those institutions.

Withers said his staff did all these things while dealing with their own storm troubles at home: 71 of them had vehicle damaged, with nine totaled; 14 homes were heavily damaged; 135 had roof damage; and many were temporarily displaced.

The staffing is currently at 277, and the prison is looking to fill a few positions, most of which either resulted from promotions or openings created by resignations. There are 15 internal vacancies, in jobs that are only open to currently prison staffers. There are more than 19 correctional officer jobs currently available, though, and some medical positions, with more correctional officer jobs potentially opening up as internal positions are filled. When officers get those promotions, it opens up more basic CO jobs to fill. Prison officials say they need leads for rentals as prison staffing continues to build.

Life is getting somewhat back to normal, but the institution will see one more major change soon — Withers has been assigned to run a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Friday was his last community relations board meeting as head of FCI-Marianna. He said a replacement has not yet been selected.

The meeting was well-attended, with several local government officials invited to attend and hear more about the prison’s future. The prison provided breakfast and then Withers had several associate wardens speak about the storm response.

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