‘Formula for disaster’: COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Florida prisons

144 inmates, 110 corrections workers have tested positive for COVID-19

144 inmates, 110 corrections workers have tested positive for COVID-19

Florida Department of Corrections officials said Thursday 144 inmates and 110 corrections workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

The highly contagious novel coronavirus, which has caused four inmate deaths, has spread quickly within Florida’s prison system, which is the third-largest in the nation with roughly 94,000 inmates, 23,000 workers and 145 facilities. COVID-19 has been detected in 56 prisons and four probation offices across the state as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Corrections.

A study found it cost $30,000 to hospitalized the average American for coronavirus treatment. That’s not to say health care costs for state prisoners are the same, but it’s still a lot as the number of COVID-19 cases inside Florida’s prisons continues to climb.

Many inmates packed into communal settings are aging and not in great health -- all risk factors for serious complications from COVID-19.

“The social distancing is next to impossible when you’re on top of each other,” said Kevin Gay, who has worked with Florida prisoners for more than two decades. “You’ve got a formula for disaster.”

Gay’s Jacksonville nonprofit, Operation New Hope, helps former inmates reacclimate to society once released. His staff of more than 45 is now cut off from visiting prisoners because of social distancing.

“We have to put pressure on facilities to really be honest about what is going on because this may be the last cohort that we really find out how bad, bad is,” said Gay, who thinks another agency like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Florida Department of Health should have unfettered access to what’s happening on the inside of prisons.

The majority of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 are in three prisons: Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach and Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell.

At the Daytona Beach facility, 47 inmates and seven prison workers tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, officials said. Sumter Correctional Institution had 44 inmates and four employees who tested positive for COVID-19. Florida Department of Corrections officials said Sunday they are prioritizing the distribution of cloth face masks to corrections workers and inmates at the Sumter and Tomoka correctional facilities.

Four inmates at the Blackwater prison in Santa Rosa County have died from complications of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. The Milton prison, which is operated by The Geo Group Inc., had 43 inmates and 10 workers who tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, corrections officials said.

“All it takes is one or two officers coming in that are asymptomatic and it’s like a fire,” Gay said.

The News4Jax I-TEAM found CDC guidelines that state any inmate who is sick should get a face mask and be separated from others, and staffers who are sick shouldn’t come work in a prison. The CDC also recommends giving prisoners free soap to help encourage frequent hand-washing.

Across the state, 4,019 inmates have been placed in medical isolation or medical quarantine after being exposed to the virus. The vast majority of the inmates who have been exposed -- 3,942 cases -- were in medical quarantine, a practice used to separate people who came into close contact with others who tested positive for the virus or who were symptomatic, corrections officials said.

According to Thursday’s corrections department report, 409 Florida prisoners have been tested for the virus, with 18.8% of test results pending. Agency officials have not disclosed how many employees have undergone testing.

Gay said when it comes to testing, prisons should be thought of first and not last.

“It’s just so easy to say them over there -- them in poor Northwest Jacksonville or them inside prisons,” Gay said. “It’s a human issue. It’s a health issue. It’s a fiscal issue. It’s all of it."

He said officers should be tested rapidly to keep everyone inside well. Also, as the state releases some nonviolent offenders early to slow the spread, Gay said, they should be tested to make sure they aren’t carrying COVID-19 back to their home communities.

On Wednesday, former congresswoman Corrine Brown was released from Federal Correctional Institution Coleman in Central Florida after the Bureau of Prisons granted her what’s called “compassionate release.”

New guidelines from the Department of Justice this week allowed prison officials to grant compassionate release, urging them to move more inmates home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Brown was sentenced in 2017 to five years after she was convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and wire, tax and mail fraud. She started her prison sentence in 2018.