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Inmate Infections, Deaths Soar Amid Pleas For More Help

prison bars
Emiliano Bar
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As the numbers of COVID-19 deaths and infections in prisons soar, workers, inmates and their loved ones continue to plead for help from the state.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday the Florida Department of Corrections, which is part of his administration, will continue to test and isolate symptomatic inmates. But he did not outline any other measures under consideration to prevent infections among inmates and staff members.

“They are going to continue going through the testing regime, but I think the main thing is just isolating the folks who are symptomatic and likely to be spreading it, and I know they’ve worked hard to do that,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference in Tallahassee.

As of Thursday, 14,271 state inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, a number that has skyrocketed since mid-July, when 2,591 prisoners had tested positive for the virus.

Prison deaths tied to the novel coronavirus have also soared by 165 percent since mid-July. The virus had killed 75 inmates and two corrections officers, Joseph Foster and Robert Rogers, as of Thursday.

Since the pandemic started in March, criminal-justice reform advocates and state lawmakers have warned that correctional facilities will be vectors in the pandemic because they are often crowded, with social distancing nearly impossible. The advocates have called, in part, for trimming the prison population by releasing certain non-violent offenders who are at risk of contracting the virus or prisoners who have a few months left in their sentences.

“There are some number of people who can be released safely into the community, and we can protect them from COVID-19, we can slow the spread inside prisons, and we can slow down the spillover from prisons to the community by releasing them,” Greg Newburn, the Florida executive director of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a recent interview.

Democratic state lawmakers held a conference call Thursday to urge DeSantis and Corrections Secretary Mark Inch --- who also recently tested positive for COVID-19 --- to do more to protect prisoners and workers.

“People need to realize these are real people with real lives and that we are giving death sentences to people who would have been released. They are dying in our facilities,” state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said during the call.

But DeSantis has been reluctant to release inmates as a response to the pandemic, saying in April that he did not think the move “make a lot of sense.”

Outbreaks have occurred at prisons throughout the state, including in many rural areas where prisons are major employers.

During the past week, for example, the Department of Corrections has issued news releases about how it is dealing with large numbers of cases at five prisons. They are Lowell Correctional Institution, which had 992 inmate cases as of Thursday; Suwannee Correctional Institution, which had 806 inmate cases; Century Correctional Institution, which had 759 inmate cases; Taylor Correctional Institution, which had 613 inmate cases; and Baker Correctional Institution, which had 561 inmate cases.

At least 14 inmate deaths are tied to South Florida Reception Center in Miami, while eight have involved inmates at Dade Correctional Institution, according to Florida Department of Health numbers. In addition, 2,185 corrections workers have tested positive statewide, with the Department of Corrections saying Wednesday that 1,160 had been cleared to return to work.

The response to the pandemic in prisons is a stark contrast to efforts to halt the spread of the virus in other high-risk facilities, such as nursing homes.

As the virus threatened the state’s senior population, the governor quickly implemented policies to protect residents at long-term care facilities. DeSantis, for instance, has touted facilities where nursing-home residents can be moved if they test positive for COVID-19.

“I will say one of the things that’s been very helpful in mitigating these outbreaks has been our COVID-only nursing facilities,” the governor said, noting they are key to being able to fully isolate positive residents. “They need to be isolated, most facilities can’t appropriately isolate them.”

In state prisons, visitation have been suspended since March. But there are no testing requirements for workers, who can transmit the virus. And employees, who are fearful about working in prisons with COVID-19 outbreaks, have complained about a lack of protective gear and a lack of testing.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, DeSantis said he did not think the mitigation efforts in nursing homes would work in prisons.

“Obviously, when you are talking about a prison, there is a much more challenging situation that you are dealing with in terms of finding alternative facilities,” he said. “I mean, they are isolated within the existing framework that they have, and we’ve obviously encouraged them to do it.”

DeSantis said the state has devoted significant resources to test the state’s roughly 87,700 inmates. As of Thursday, the state had conducted 74,795 tests on prisoners, with 3,560 pending results and re-tests.

“We’ve dedicated a lot of testing resources to the prisons,” DeSantis said. “If nursing homes have been the most robust target for us in terms of testing, I would say prisons have been second just in terms of the amount of resources.”

DeSantis has not addressed calls from workers for additional benefits, such as hazard pay for corrections officers who are asked to work longer hours at prisons with COVID-19 cases. 

“Corrections officers, statewide and nationally, are testing positive for COVID-19 and unknowingly bringing danger into their homes. The danger of the coronavirus is something once again never contemplated and certainly not addressed in any collective bargaining agreement or state law,” Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, wrote in a July 30 letter to Inch.