TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida’s prison system reached a grim milestone this week, as state corrections officials reported that more than 100 inmates have died of complications related to COVID-19.
As of Friday, 107 inmates and at least three corrections workers had died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a Florida Department of Corrections report.
The prisoner death toll has more than doubled since Aug. 3, when corrections officials reported 53 COVID-19 inmate deaths.
The highly contagious coronavirus spreading throughout Florida has resulted in major outbreaks at state correctional facilities.
More than 1,000 inmates at two state prisons --- Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala and Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City --- have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state reports. Other institutions have reported hundreds of prisoner coronavirus cases, and the total number of inmates who have tested positive statewide exceeds 15,600.
More than 12,000 prisoners have been cleared from what the Department of Corrections calls “medical isolation,” where they were placed after testing positive for the coronavirus or showing symptoms of COVID-19.
At least 16 South Florida Reception Center inmates have died of COVID-19, the Florida Department of Health reported earlier this week. The Doral facility has 204 inmates and 147 prison workers who have tested positive for the virus, according to corrections officials.
Statewide, 2,698 prison employees have tested positive, and corrections workers increasingly have become anxious as the number of cases among staff and prisoners continues to increase.
“This ain’t easy for them. It’s stressing them out,” Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told The News Service of Florida on Friday.
Corrections officers “always care about the inmates’ health, because it affects them too,” he added.
Baiardi predicted that the virus will have a dire impact on the already short-staffed state corrections agency when the pandemic subsides.
“We’re going to see a lot of correctional officers that are going to have mental-health issues from this. We’re going to see the suicide rates go up. It’s almost like they’re working at a morgue now. I don’t think they were trained for that, either,” the union leader said.
Baiardi blamed coronavirus outbreaks at some prisons on the relocation of inmates from one institution to another during the pandemic.
“When they had the big breakout at Tomoka (Correctional Institution in Volusia County), for some ungodly reason, they transferred inmates out of there to Columbia. And guess what became a hot spot later? They need to stop moving inmates around,” he said.
As of Friday, eight inmates at Columbia Correctional had died of COVID-19, and 1,338 prisoners and 87 staff members had tested positive.
Corrections officials are requiring prison employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work as soon as they no longer have symptoms, which agency officials maintain complies with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
Under the federal guidelines, employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 are safe to return to work following a period of at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared, they have gone at least 24 hours experiencing no fever without fever-reducing medication and symptoms have improved.
But Baiardi said correctional officers remain skeptical of the state agency’s approach.
“The staff does not feel that they’re getting enough support from everyone across the department,” Baiardi said. “I know there’s not really a playbook on something like this, but the department has emergency plans that they review and people get big money to write it. … If I had to give a grade to whoever that person was who did it or was calling the shots on this, I give him a big fat F.”
The virus hasn’t spared the state agency’s top officials.
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch and a top lieutenant both tested positive for COVID-19. Agency officials said on Aug. 1 that Inch began experiencing symptoms 24 hours after he returned from a statewide conference and a visit to the Lake City prison.
“It just seems to the officers that they’re not convinced that the department has a hold on this,” Baiardi said. “We’re still getting a lot of complaints --- the department routinely denies it --- but we still get lots of complaints about safety equipment.”
Some correctional officers have been sleeping in their garages or separated from their families since the coronavirus began to sweep the state in March, he said.
The coronavirus also has hit federal prisons in Florida.
According to the federal Bureau of Prisons website, six inmates at federal prisons in Florida have died of complications related to COVID-19. Three Miami-Dade County federal prisoners died, and three inmates who were housed at facilities in rural Sumter County also died, according to the website.
The Bureau of Prisons announced this week that visitation at federal correctional facilities will resume next month. Visitors and inmates will have to wear face masks, will not be allowed to touch one another and will be separated by “plexiglass, or similar barriers, or social distancing,” the agency said in an announcement Wednesday.
“The BOP (Bureau of Prisons) recognizes the importance for inmates to maintain relationships with friends and family,” the announcement said.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis, who stopped visitation in the state prison system in March, isn’t revealing when Florida inmates will resume face-to-face interactions with friends and families.
“The Florida Department of Corrections is in the planning process of resuming visitation as soon as it is practical and safe for visitors, inmates and staff,” Cody McCloud, a spokesman for DeSantis, said in an email on Wednesday.