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Possibility Of Coronavirus Outbreak In Prisons Sparks Fear

Prisoners crowding around a table
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As the number of Florida corrections workers testing positive for COVID-19 grows, fears of an outbreak in the nation’s third-largest prison system have gripped employees, inmates and their loved ones.

“The problem with the prisons is that we are a little gated community --- and once it hits there, it’s going to hit. And the window is closing on the department (Florida Department of Corrections) to be able to get this under control,” Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said in an interview Tuesday.

On the front lines, prison employees who are reporting to work are worried that they don’t have gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer to protect them from the highly contagious and rapidly spreading coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

Mothers of inmates are frantically reaching out to state lawmakers for help. 

“I’ve heard from a number of constituents who are worried that their loved ones are sitting ducks, and that during a pandemic, they are going to get infected and that the state is not going to help them,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, told The News Service of Florida.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said he is “getting inundated with requests from families to look into certain activities.”

Corrections officials, however, maintain that they are prepared to handle a potential outbreak in the state prison system, which has 143 facilities, roughly 96,000 inmates and 23,000 workers. Prisons are on lockdown, and all face-to-face visitations have been cancelled.

“We are doing all we can to keep our inmates, offenders, staff, communities and our families safe. As we work through this public health emergency, please know our goals for your loved ones’ safety are the same as yours,” Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch wrote to “friends, family and loved ones of incarcerated individuals” in an open letter posted on the agency’s website Sunday.

To prevent the spread of the virus, prison officials are telling inmates to wash their hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, as health officials recommend. Inmates largely have been restricted to interacting with inmates housed within their dorms.

Prisoners eat, take classes and engage in recreational activities with other inmates in their dormitories, corrections department officials told Smith in an email last week.

But the Orlando legislator said he is skeptical that all inmates will be able to keep a safe distance in their dormitories, if the virus begins to spread within the prison system.

“It depends on the dorm. I’ve walked into dorms that have 50 to 60 inmates in one dorm,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “At a certain point, social distancing at a prison can only go so far.”

Another issue is a lack of information about how many inmates have been tested at prison facilities. Corrections officials say there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases within the inmate population, but it is unclear how many prisoners have been tested.

Smith said he asked for the information, but has been told only that the number fluctuates.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady referred questions from the News Service about the number of inmates who have been tested to the state Department of Health, which did not immediately provide the information.

As of Wednesday afternoon, state health officials reported 6,954 people in Florida have tested positive for COVID-19, including a dozen corrections workers. The virus has caused 87 deaths in the state, officials said.

Anxiety about a potential outbreak behind bars escalated late last week, when prison officials reported several employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

To quell correctional workers’ fears, the union represnting them is pushing agency officials to speed up distribution of protective gear to employees.

“The concern is that, if we do have an outbreak within a facility, staff needs to have the proper disinfecting and cleaning materials, that they have the gowns and the gloves, and the face masks, and the space to do the quarantine,” Police Benevolent Association Executive Director Matt Puckett said in an interview.

Baiardi said the department should re-evaluate which employees are considered essential and must report to work.

For example, some educators are still being asked to show up at prisons, even though they are not teaching inmates face-to-face much of the time.

In a March 26 memo obtained by the News Service, supervisors asked staff to report to work to create instructional packets for inmates to complete in their dorms.

“Programming will not only keep our students engaged and their brains active, it will serve to decrease the boredom inherent with restrictions of this scope and scale. We see it as our role to promote the safety and security of our institutions by providing positive activity options for our resident population,” the memo reads.

A teacher who works at a South Florida prison said he is upset he is not allowed to prepare the packets from home. He is worried about being exposed to the virus, which is quickly spreading in the area.

“I am really more concerned about the inmates because a lot of them are about to get out. They have expectations and are really working hard to re-enter society,” the educator, who asked to remain anonymous because he is afraid of being fired, said in an interview this week.

The teacher said he is concerned about what would happen if hundreds of prisoners become infected at the same time.

“Where are they going to take the inmates to get better?” he said.