Inmate infections spike at state prisons; feds report first case among U.S. prisons in FL

The Florida Senate voted Wednesday to shut down one state prison. Credit: Iuoman/Getty Images

Update: Hours after publishing this report, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported that a second federal facility in Florida has at least one employee infected with COVID-19. The first was Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County. The second is a Federal Detention Center in Miami, holding 1,023 inmates arrested but not convicted who could not post bail. Systemwide, the federal prison system announced a ninth inmate death Friday, at Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution, where five other inmates have died. Three other inmates died at Elkton FCI in Ohio.

A total of 30 inmates are infected by the COVID-19 respiratory disease at a privately-run state prison in Santa Rosa County, including 26 new cases confirmed overnight Thursday.

There were only four reported cases there a day earlier, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Inmate infections at privately run Blackwater Correctional Facility spiked in one day from four to 30. Six employees there also are sick. Statewide, just one other inmate is confirmed sick, at Sumter CI. Infections are confirmed in 42 staff at 21 state prisons and three of the state’s four regional probation offices. Source: Florida Department of Corrections

The private prison, Blackwater Correctional Facility operated by the Geo Group, is the only state prison reporting multiple confirmed infections among inmates.

As of Thursday night, one other prison, Sumter Correctional Institution, reported an infected inmate, bringing the total number of inmates infected at 31 across the state prison system.

In addition, 42 employees are infected at 21 state prisons and three regional probation offices. That includes six employees at the private Blackwater facility.

FDC provided no comment about the outbreak. But it did announce it has extended its prohibition on visitation at least through April 30.

“We are doing all we can to keep our inmates, staff, community and our families safe. We don’t take this decision lightly,” Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said in a published statement. “During this state of emergency, it’s critical we take all precautions necessary to minimize the potential risk to the inmate population and staff charged with their care and custody. The current situation dictates that we extend this suspension.”

Inmates can “visit” with loved ones via mail, phone calls and limited video interactions, Inch said in the statement. Lawyers may continue to visit in person but are encouraged instead to consult with their clients by phone, mail and email.

State prisons in Florida incarcerate 96,000 people and employ 24,000 staff at 143 facilities, from major institutions to work camps to work-release centers.

Inmate advocates are demanding that Gov. Ron DeSantis release inmates most at risk of dying, starting with the elderly and sickly, as coronavirus spreads through the state prisons. The advocates include the Innocence Project of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Florida Council of Churches.

First infection among Florida’s federal prisons

Meanwhile, the federal prison system has confirmed the first case of COVID-19 among the nine prisons it operates in Florida. This state’s federal prisons, incarcerating 10,000 people, had remained free of confirmed infections until Thursday.

While more than 400 infections and eight deaths were confirmed in federal prisons elsewhere, the nine federal prisons in Florida were believed virus-free until Thursday, when an employee tested positive at Sumter FCC. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Prison 4-10-20

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported one employee tested positive for coronavirus at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County.

Throughout the nation, federal prisons reported 283 inmates and 125 employees were confirmed as infected through Thursday evening, up from 253 inmates and 85 employees the day before.

Coronavirus hotspots in the U.S. prison system are in Arizona (23 infected inmates, four infected staff), California (30 inmates, 16 staff), Connecticut (36 inmates, 15 staff), Louisiana (38 inmates, 14 staff, five inmate deaths), Missouri (37 inmates, three staff), North Carolina (59 inmates, 17 staff), and Ohio (10 inmates, nine staff, three inmate deaths).

The federal prison system has been releasing certain inmates deemed low risk to public safety but at high risk of dying from COVID-19. Since March 26, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reports it has transferred 789 inmates to monitored home confinement.