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Prison Operator Releases Details Of COVID-19 Outbreak

Blackwater River Correctional Facility
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

TALLAHASSEE --- A private prison company that operates a Northwest Florida facility where four inmates have died of COVID-19 unexpectedly released detailed information Thursday night about the medical attention prisoners have received amid the pandemic.

After state agencies repeatedly refused to answer questions about inmate deaths, The Geo Group Inc. disclosed information about inmate hospitalizations, fatalities and quarantines at Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County.

The Boca Raton-based company said it has “fully disclosed” to the Florida Department of Corrections and the Department of Managemnt Services, the agency that oversees private prison contracts, that 43 Blackwater inmates are in medical isolation and that four inmates have been hospitalized, including two who later died.

But the state agencies, which are part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, for weeks have refused to disclose the information, despite numerous requests by The News Service of Florida and other news outlets. The agencies also kept the first two inmate fatalities secret for nearly a week, acknowledging the deaths only after they were reported by the News Service.

“There is no reason why the state of Alabama is more transparent and is providing more information to inmates and families than the Florida Department of Corrections,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said in an interview Friday.

The state has revealed scant details about the number of inmates and workers being tested in Florida’s prison system, where 63 corrections workers and 44 inmates have tested positive for the highly contagious virus as of Thursday, according to the Department of Corrections.

In a prepared statement released Friday afternoon, the Department of Corrections said the agency "is not releasing information that would lead to the identification of individuals due to privacy concerns."

Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said the agency is "committed to keeping the public informed" during the public health emergency.

"As we are being transparent, we must also exercise patience and appropriate levels of prudence to determine what information can be provided under state and federal laws. It takes diligence to provide accurate and releasable information about secure operations. I’ve committed to the families of the incarcerated to keep them informed and I plan to continue to do just that," Inch said.

The Geo Group released details about infections and medical attention provided to inmates at Blackwater, the state's hardest-hit correctional facility, as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration undergoes intense scrutiny for a lack of transparency about COVID-19 cases in prisons and long-term care facilities.

Two of the four Blackwater inmates who died from complications of COVID-19 were hospitalized for 10 days or more, the Boca Raton-based company said in a statement. A third inmate died in medical isolation at the Milton prison while COVID-19 test results were pending, the company said.

The third inmate, whose name and age have not been identified, was not taken to the hospital because he “had shown signs of improved health prior to his death,” the company said in a prepared statement provided to the News Service. The man did not have a fever and his vital signs were normal when he died, according to the statement. Information about a fourth Blackwater prisoner who died was not available Friday afternoon.

Florida corrections officials reported Thursday that COVID-19 has been detected in 25 prisons and three probation offices across the state, but have not yet disclosed how many employees have been tested for the virus or which facilities are testing inmates. 

Brandes accused the Department of Health and the Department of Corrections of “some finger-pointing” in response to his queries about the COVID-19 situation in prisons.

“My conversation with the Department of Health was, what are the barriers? Why can’t we get clear, straight-forward information out of the department?” the frustrated senator said.

For weeks, corrections officials and the governor’s office have refused to disclose the number of workers who have been tested for COVID-19, or which facilities are testing inmates. Officials also have not responded to inquiries about the number of inmates who have been placed in isolation or hospitalized after being exposed to the virus. 

But the state has received the information from Geo, the private-prison behemoth said in a statement.

“GEO has fully disclosed to FDC and DMS the number of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, those who have been hospitalized, those who have been placed in medical isolation, and those who have passed away,” the statement said.

Corrections officials said they did not immediately disclose the fatalities while they were "determining the proper manner for releasing the information." The agency will not identify facilities where the deaths occured.

“The district Medical Examiner is required to determine the cause of death for any person who dies in a prison, and that determination is releasable by the Medical Examiner,” the agency said in Friday's statement. “For detailed information on COVID-19 deaths by county, please contact the Florida Department of Health.”

Based on the information corrections officials have disclosed, a surge of testing is needed to target symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers of the highly contagious virus in prisons, Brandes said.

The state has tested 310 inmates statewide, with 54 percent of test results pending, according to data provided on the corrections agency’s website on Thursday. The number of tests that have been performed encompass approximately 0.3 percent of the state’s 94,000 inmates. 

Corrections officials have not disclosed the number of staff --- approximately 23,000 statewide --- who have undergone testing for the virus. The Geo Group did not immediately respond to questions about its employees.

"To me they need to do exactly what they are doing at the nursing homes and model that into the prison system,” Brandes said. “We need to be testing hundreds and hundreds of people every day at different facilities around the state.”

In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable residents and workers at long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, DeSantis has established four-member “strike teams” to test as many people as possible.

Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for the governor, did not say whether DeSantis would consider sending COVID-19 strike teams to prisons. 

“The agency remains in constant communication with corrections institutions, inmates and their families. Secretary Inch is working closely with the Florida Department of Health on testing and has directed all correctional institutions to follow CDC guidance,” she said in a statement. 

Beatrice said the governor’s office staff is “in daily contact with the Department of Corrections.”

According to the governor’s public schedule, DeSantis has not had a one-on-one call or meeting with since COVID-19 cases were first reported at prisons three weeks ago.

Inch briefed Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nunez about COVID-19 over the phone on Thursday, her public schedule showed.

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Ana Ceballos/News Service of Florida