Spread of COVID-19 inside prison behind spike of Baker County cases

Florida DOC said nearly 1,000 inmates at the prison are still waiting on the results of their coronavirus tests.

SANDERSON, Fla. – You might see a headline that Baker County set a record with 102 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. What’s behind this big surge in a small county is an outbreak within Baker Correctional Institution in Sanderson.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, there were 266 cases among inmates at Baker Correctional as of Friday -- 42% the 630 total number of cases the state Health Department data shows for the county. Another 21 staff members of the institution have tested positive, according to the DOC website.

Florida DOC said nearly 1,000 inmates at the prison are still waiting on the results of their coronavirus tests.

Corrections officers are scrambling to sort and quarantine prisoners with symptoms. DOC said 483 inmates are already in quarantine and 24 are in medical isolation.

A spokesperson for the state told News4Jax that a response team has been activated and rigorous cleaning is already in place throughout the institutions is being heightened. All BCI staff and inmates were issued and are required to wear face coverings. Temperature checks are being conducted daily. Baker Correctional is now providing medical services and meals to inmates within their cells.

News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson served as a corrections officer at the Duval County jail before beginning his career as a police officer. He said social distancing inside a detention facility is not an option.

“It’s virtually impossible to keep distance 6 feet apart in a prison or even in a jail facility,” Jefferson said. “Correctional officers are responsible for the care custody and control of all the prisoners at all times 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The inmates are going to be moving all around all the time and they’re going to intermingle with each other. They’re going to intermingle with corrections officers.”

The virus disease has shown itself to be efficient at moving rapidly through prisons and jails. According to the Department of Corrections, 11,000 inmates have been diagnosed and 63 inmates have died from COVID-19.

A DOC spokesperson said that release dates have not been affected by the ongoing health emergency at this time and early release would be up to a judge, not to the department.

The Department of Corrections couldn’t say how the outbreak could have started or how the virus got into the facility. They said contact tracing is under investigation by the Department of Health.

“Lack of transparency from the inmates as well as some of the correctional officers will produce an outbreak that you’re not aware of,” Jefferson said. “You could have asymptomatic people walking around spreading the virus and not knowing it because they feel OK, they feel fine. And they’re not having a test because they’re not exhibiting any kind of symptoms, so they figure everything’s OK, everything’s all fine.”

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