Undisclosed inmate deaths caught FL lawmakers off guard; now another death, with no details

Coronavirus has reached Florida's state and federal prisons. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Update: A third and a fourth inmate known to have died of COVID-19 in Florida’s state prison system were all inmates at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, according to the District 1 Medical Examiners Office. Jeff Martin, director of that office, said Jessie Bannerman, 66, died in a local hospital Thursday after becoming sick at the prison. Likewise, Rasael Rosario, 65, died in a local hospital Wednesday. Williams Wilson, 84, died in a local hospital Sunday. And Jeffrey Sand, 69, died inside the prison, which is privately run by The GEO Group Inc., in Santa Rosa County. The Florida Department of Corrections released no details about the inmate deaths, only the number.

Two state lawmakers who speak frequently with state prison authorities said Thursday they were disappointed that the Florida Department of Corrections failed to tell them or the public that two inmates died from COVID-19 days ago.

A third death was reported late Thursday but with no details on when or where.

Both lawmakers said their phones and inboxes are brimming with messages from worried employees and families of inmates who fear the prison system is concealing the severity of the disease’s spread.

“They’re telling me they’re petrified,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, a Hillsborough County Democrat, who learned about the first two deaths “through the grapevine” early this week.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, said he learned about the deaths Thursday through news media, although he spoke with prison authorities “about a week ago.”

Two inmates died at Blackwater River Correctional Institution, a private prison in Santa Rosa County, on April 9 and April 12, as revealed by News Service of Florida, citing local coroner’s records.

Through midday Wednesday, a week after the first of the inmates died, the Florida Department of Corrections made no mention of any fatalities in its COVID-19 daily reports.

This terse announcement is all the state prison system would say about inmates who have died of COVID-19. Source: FL Department of Corrections

On Thursday, at 4 p.m., the Department of Corrections cited a third death with no accompanying details.

Rep. Hart said employees and families of inmates knew about the two deaths and were disturbed that the news was kept secret until a reporter confirmed the deaths outside the purview of the Department of Corrections.

“I knew about them a few days ago, from a family member,” Hart said. “The grapevine is superb.”

Hart said she speaks with corrections officials and wardens almost daily but rarely gets satisfactory information about testing, inmate hospitalizations, preventive hygiene, personal protective equipment, sick employees off duty for self-isolation or hospitalization, and other reports related to coronavirus behind bars.

“From the moment someone dies, they should make that known,” Hart said. “As elected officials, we have the right to know the truth.”

Brandes said he spoke to prison officials about Blackwater – the first of the state prisons to report an outbreak of COVID-19 – “about a week ago” and was not informed that any inmates had died or were near death.

He said the Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Health should collaborate to promptly release accurate information about COVID-19 deaths in the state prison system.

“I have always called for more transparency,” Brandes said. “What’s there to hide? Just tell people. Florida still lacks the transparency of states like Alabama.”

Corrections Press Secretary Kayla McLaughlin said the department reported the two inmate deaths in a website revamp late Wednesday, a week after the first of the inmate deaths.

The modest citation, posted low on the web page, gives no names, no dates of death and no indication where the inmates were incarcerated. McLaughlin said there was no other “releasable” information to provide and she did not explain who decides what is releasable and when.

In contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which operates federal prisons around the country, issues detailed press releases when an inmate dies of COVID-19.

Overall, 17 inmates infected in four federal prisons (none in Florida) have died in hospitals nearby since March 28, according to the Bureau of Prisons update on Thursday afternoon.

For each death, the federal prison system reports the inmate’s name, age, place of incarceration, crime for which they were sentenced to prison, when he or she became ill, when he or she tested positive, and when he or she died.

Brandes and Hart, both leaders in Florida’s criminal-justice reform efforts, said they both have urged Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corrections Secretary Mark Inch to institute broader testing among inmates and corrections staff and to release low-risk elderly and sickly inmates most at risk of contracting and dying from the disease.

California, Colorado and Washington are among states that have granted early prison releases to slow the infection and death rate. Florida is not.

Meanwhile, a new outbreak has flared at Tomoka Correctional Institution, a state-run prison in Daytona Beach.

Systemwide, 63 employees and 44 inmates in state prisons are confirmed sick with COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections’ report released Thursday at 4 p.m.

Blackwater had 34 infected inmates and nine infected employees. Tomoka had seven infected inmates and three infected employees.