TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The number of inmates at Columbia Correctional Institution who have tested positive for COVID-19 increased to 1,096 on Friday, as major outbreaks of the deadly respiratory disease continue in the prison system, according to data released by the state Department of Corrections.
The rural North Florida prison went from 574 cases on Wednesday to 973 on Thursday and then 1,096 on Friday, and three inmates at the prison have died from complications of the disease during the past week, state reports show. In all, about 48% of the approximately 2,280 inmates at the facility near Lake City are known to have been infected with COVID-19.
“This is a total nightmare,” Audrey Jennings Hudgins, the mother of an inmate at Columbia, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.
The skyrocketing number of cases has left Hudgins and other family members worried about the safety and well-being of inmates and workers at the prison.
Hudgins’ son, William Jennings, is among 2,271 inmates who had undergone testing for COVID-19 at the facility as of Thursday. Among those who had received results, about 66% had tested positive, Department of Corrections numbers show.
Jennings, who is serving a life sentence for armed robbery, tested negative last week. But he said Tuesday he was experiencing some mild symptoms, including body aches and a slight fever, and was scared he would test positive if the prison did another round of testing.
“If I’m positive, they will probably put me in confinement because there’s no room to put me anywhere. I don’t want that because I would lose all communication with my family,” the 44-year-old said.
Columbia has by far the most COVID-19 cases in the state prison system, but outbreaks also have occurred at other facilities. The overall number of inmates who had tested positive increased from 4,179 on Wednesday to 4,886 on Thursday and then 5,158 on Friday, with the inmate death toll increasing to 37. Also, the numbers of infected corrections workers increased to 1,318.
Among other prisons that have seen recent surges in cases is Bay Correctional Facility, which had 284 inmate cases as of Thursday.
Columbia is among 15 prisons where corrections and health officials have offered tests to all inmates and staff members. Staff members -- who include corrections workers, nurses, food service workers, administrative staff and other prison personnel -- are not required to get tested.
As of Friday, 52 staff members at Columbia had tested positive for the virus. The department has not disclosed how many staff members have undergone testing.
Jennings said staff members at the prison have been enforcing the use of face masks for inmates and have been thoroughly cleaning all surfaces every hour.
The massive increase in cases, which has occurred over the past two weeks, has prompted corrections officials to restrict movement at Columbia in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. That includes providing all services, including medical services and meals, to inmates within their housing units.
The prison also launched what it called an “emergency meal plan,” Jennings said. He said inmates are now getting smaller meal portions that often include two peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and an apple for lunch and two bologna sandwiches for dinner.
“I mean, what can they do? They don’t have the inmates to make the meals because everyone’s sick. The staff are helping make the meals, and they are underpopulated,” Jennings said.
The ballooning number of cases in the prison system has led to staffing shortages at two facilities -- Dade Correctional Institution and Jefferson Correctional Institution -- where workers have been asked to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week to maintain adequate staffing levels.
Inmates, criminal-justice reform advocates and some state lawmakers have been calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to do more in response to the prison outbreaks, including granting the release of certain inmates to reduce the number of people who could become exposed to the virus.
So far, DeSantis has not responded to those calls. But comments he made in April, when the prison system had a total of 73 COVID-19 cases, suggest he is opposed to considering the release of inmates.
“I don’t see how in a time of pandemic where people are on edge already (that) releasing felons into society would make a whole lot of sense. I think it makes everything we are doing with social distancing more difficult,” DeSantis told reporters.