When inmates started dying of COVID-19, Florida kept it quiet until it leaked out

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When inmates started dying of COVID-19, Florida kept it quiet until it leaked out

(MIAMI HERALD) – Cases of COVID-19 in Florida prisons may be metastasizing and so are the fears of staffers, lawmakers and family members of inmates, who wonder what is being done to keep inmates and employees safe as the highly contagious virus spreads.

At least four inmates have died, nearly one in three inmate tests are coming back positive and there’s little information on exactly who is being tested and when.

The first inmate deaths weren’t acknowledged by the Florida Department of Corrections for six days — and only after a news organization revealed them.

Statewide, 63 staffers have come down with the virus, many of them in state prisons run by private contractors. At a time when millions are losing their jobs nationwide, the Department of Corrections announced this week that it was lowering the minimum age to be a corrections officer and offering $1,000 bonuses for new recruits.

It’s been over a month since the first COVID-19 cases in Florida started to pop up, but just one day since the FDC started to publicly list how many inmates and employees have been tested for the disease.

“We are seeing many states improve their transparency while Florida isn’t going anywhere,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and criminal justice reform advocate. “I’m just trying to cut through the red tape and get some clarity on who is the lead in providing that information.”

For weeks, the FDC, from its communication staff to Secretary Mark Inch, has ignored questions from reporters about how many inmates were being tested, how many tests were coming back positive, how many were coming back negative and how many were pending.

The state, which oversees more than 24,000 staff and approximately 95,000 inmates, has tested 310 inmates, according to numbers first posted on the department’s website on Wednesday and updated Thursday. Of those, 44 came up positive, 96 negative, and 170 are awaiting results.

As of now, only inmates experiencing flu-like symptoms are being tested, according to the department’s website. Relatives and friends of inmates, however, regularly tip off journalists to unreported outbreaks, and shortages of soap, gloves and masks. They also say staffers routinely neglect to quarantine inmates when they enter the system or transfer from one prison to another.

For weeks, the department has ignored press queries about complaints like these.

The most recent flurry of COVID-19 cases was announced via posting on the FDC website to have occurred at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, where three employees and seven inmates have tested positive.

A woman whose friend has been at Tomoka for three years said one of his dorm-mates was sick and soon after the man was taken away by medical personnel, nurses came to take the temperatures of the approximately 80 men who shared the dorm. The men received masks and were told the dorm would be “on lockdown” for three days, but none of them were tested for COVID-19, the woman said.

“I know it will be a strain on the camp to test everyone but any dorm that had someone test positive should test all the inmates in that dorm,” she said. “Leaving them all together has put them all at risk.”

The 44 positive cases as of Wednesday translates to a rate of four per 10,000 inmates — the same as that of California, one of the epicenters of the outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States. Because Florida’s testing numbers are so small, their significance is limited in demonstrating a trend.

The Texas prison system, second largest behind California and ahead of Florida, has a confirmed case rate of 20 per 10,000 inmates, according to a Miami Herald/McClatchy analysis. In facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the rate is 26 per 10,000.

In New York City, another epicenter in the outbreak, the rate of confirmed cases is a staggering 375 cases per 10,000 inmates. The state of New York has separate prison systems at the county and state levels and another for New York City.

Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a state prison near Pensacola run by a private contractor, the Geo Group, has been the hardest hit by the virus. Blackwater has nine staff members and 34 inmates who have tested positive, according to Thursday’s web posting.

Blackwater inmates Jeffrey Sand, 69, and William Wilson, 84, died earlier this month. Their deaths were just made public on Wednesday when a reporter for the News Service of Florida contacted the medical examiner in Santa Rosa County. On Thursday evening, the medical examiner’s office said it had received two other inmates who had died of COVID-19. Their names and ages: Rafael Rosario, 65, and Jessie Bannerman, 66.

When the News Service of Florida posted its story, the Department of Corrections acknowledged the first two deaths on its website, although the first death had occurred six days earlier. Thursday it ackowledged a third, although the medical examiner in the county has tallied four.

I am worried like crazy,” said a woman whose fiancé shared a dorm with Wilson. “The guys are crying out to their families to get some kind of help because there were so many of them sick.”

She said the men in the dorm are now getting one mask a week as protective wear.

CORRECTIONS STAFF CONCERNS

According to the department, staff at all facilities have been authorized to wear personal face masks while at work but have not yet been provided with masks by the state. PRIDE Enterprises, a company created by the Florida Legislature and using prison labor, will be transitioning to making the cloth face masks, which will be issued to correctional officers first, and then to “at-risk” inmate populations second.

John Kazanjian, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers, said while “morale is up” among staff at the prisons, catching the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is “always in the back of everybody’s mind.” More testing would help a lot, he said. And more protection.

“You go to work and you come in contact with somebody,” he said. “Until the testing is more available to us, we are just going to have to mask up, wash our hands constantly and just pray that we don’t catch it.”

On a conference call hosted by FAMM, an acronym that previously stood for Families Against Mandatory Minimums although the group has expanded its mission to other prison issues, the organization’s director, Kevin Ring, noted that “the guards and the people living there are on the same side.”

“They all want a safe place to live and work,” he said. “But prisons are the last place you’re going to dedicate resource. That’s why families are scared.”

While Gov. Ron DeSantis has acknowledged the scope of the COVID-19 problem in the state’s elder-care facilities and has said he wants the Florida National Guard to fortify “strike teams” conducting tests in those homes, he has rejected suggestions that some frail, older inmates near the end of their sentences could be released. That’s a solution being implemented in some other states.

Brandes, frustrated by the lack of answers on testing in prisons, chimed in Thursday during a Florida Health Care Association conference call about the nursing home issue.

“Who is responsible for data transparency at prisons as we have more and more cases of COVID? Who is responsible for the dissemination of that information?”

Bob Asztalos, a lobbyist for the Florida Health Care Association, said he didn’t know because he has nothing to do with prisons.

“I don’t expect an answer from you, Bob,’‘ Brandes replied. “I expect an answer from the agency. Because I doubt they are going to have a separate call for prisons like they have for nursing homes right now.”

Asztalos laughed knowingly.

After the call, Brandes told the Miami Herald that he’s been asking the state to do random testing similar to the nursing home approach “for a while now.”

The populations are similar, he said. There are thousands of elderly inmates and just like nursing homes, staff come and go. There is no visitation allowed in either. The only difference, he said, is that prisons have no good way to practice social distancing.

When asked at an April 2 news conference about the idea of furloughing some elder inmates to slow the spread, DeSantis said releasing felons wouldn’t “make things any better.”

“Some of these other states have really been releasing a lot of people. Some of these people are dangerous,” he said. “I don’t see how in a time of pandemic where people are on edge already [that] releasing felons in society would make a whole lot of sense.”

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said the chief issue with COVID-19 in prisons is that it’s impossible to stay distant from others in close quarters.

“Public health experts are unanimous that the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus in prisons is to reduce the population, to allow the people remaining to comply with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” he said. “This can be accomplished by releasing people already incarcerated, reducing new admissions, or both.”

Brandes, chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, filed two bills this year to address these issues. One would have allowed for the early release of some inmates with debilitating illnesses, and the other would allow a panel to consider early release for inmates at least 65 years old who have been in prison at least 10 years.

Both of his bills died.

“All of this is grounded in the priorities of the governor,” Orlando Democrat Rep. Anna Eskamani said on the call hosted by FAMM. “And the governor doesn’t prioritize this. Everything is a hot mess right now.”

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