Two inmates at a Northwest Florida prison have tested positive for COVID-19, the Florida Department of Corrections said Sunday.
The inmates are housed at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a prison operated by The Geo Group Inc., a private contractor. Five employees at the Milton prison have also tested positive for COVID-19, according to corrections officials. Blackwater has a maximum capacity of 2,000 inmates, the state agency’s website says.
The two cases at Blackwater are the first time corrections officials have said inmates in the nation’s third-largest prison system have tested positive for the highly contagious and rapidly spreading respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But the spread of COVID-19 within Florida’s prison system — which has 143 facilities, roughly 96,000 inmates and more than 23,000 employees, and where visitation was shut down in mid-March — has been a major concern for corrections workers, inmates and their families and state lawmakers.
“The problem with the prisons is that we are a little gated community — and once it hits there, it’s going to hit. And the window is closing on the department (Florida Department of Corrections) to be able to get this under control,” Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told The News Service of Florida last week.
In addition to the two inmates, 26 corrections workers at 14 prisons and two probation offices across the state have tested positive for COVID-19, which had caused the deaths of 218 Floridians as of Sunday morning.
Corrections officials have not revealed how many inmates have been tested for the virus. In an announcement posted on the agency’s website, the corrections department said it is “closely monitoring developments associated with COVID-19” in conjunction with the Florida Department of Health and the state Division of Emergency Management.
The Department of Corrections “is prepared to handle any potential cases of COVID-19 within the state-operated correctional institutions in Florida,” the announcement said.
Blackwater is one of seven privately run prisons in Florida. The state Department of Management Services oversees contracts with private prison contractors.
The Department of Corrections “is in close contact” with The Geo Group and the Department of Management Services “to ensure the proper infectious disease protocols are followed,” as outlined in guidance for correctional facilities issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email Sunday.
The CDC recommendations include isolating inmates and assigning them “their own housing space and bathroom where possible.”
While it is unknown how many inmates have undergone testing or complained of COVID-19 symptoms, corrections officials said county health departments are providing guidance to determine which inmates are tested.
If an inmate begins experiencing symptoms indicative of COVID-19, corrections officials “will immediately engage with the county health department and the inmate will be placed in medical isolation, pending DOH (Department of Health) testing,” the corrections agency said in Sunday’s announcement.
“Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all medically necessary medical and behavioral treatment is one of FDC’s (the Department of Corrections’) core constitutional responsibilities. FDC ensures an appropriate level of health care is provided to all inmates and FDC’s medical provider is held accountable for care in line with evolving national standards,” the announcement said.
Prison employees who have symptoms of the disease have been told not to report to work and to contact their health-care providers and will not be allowed to return to work until they have been cleared by a medical professional, the announcement said.
But corrections employees are worried that they do not have the proper equipment, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, to protect them from the deadly virus.
Concern about exposure to COVID-19 is shared by other front-line workers, such as first responders and health-care professionals, who also say they lack equipment to keep them safe.
Florida’s rapidly rising death toll from the virus includes two South Florida law enforcement officials.
Palm Beach County Sgt. José Diaz Ayala died Saturday “as a result of battling COVID-19,” Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s office announced on Twitter. Ayala, 38, “was battling other underlying health issues” before he contracted the disease, the tweet said.
Shannon Bennett, a 39-year-old deputy, died late Friday night from complications related to the coronavirus, Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony’s office announced.
Tony called Bennett “a fine deputy” and “consummate professional,” adding that the deputy helped “bridge the gap between the LGBTQ and law enforcement communities.” Bennett’s survivors include his fiancé, Jonathan Frey.
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