FL state prisons scrub key COVID data from website, obscuring magnitude of inmate deaths and infections

For the first time, inmates in Florida's public and private state prisons will soon be getting COVID vaccinations. Credit: Alex Potemkin/Getty Images

With nearly 200 inmates killed by COVID-19, Florida’s state prison system is now ranked the deadliest in the nation for coronavirus deaths. But the public might not know there’s a COVID problem behind bars.

Why? The Florida Department of Corrections website doesn’t even mention the crisis on its home page.

The words coronavirus and COVID-19 are not present. But digital banners pitching careers in corrections and probation programs are prominently displayed.

Florida government is fast becoming renowned for obfuscation — consider Gov. Ron DeSantis’ refusal to release weekly federal reports on COVID-19 in Florida, and the firing of a COVID data scientist who garnered national praise.

Now the Department of Corrections has wiped COVID-19 off its website home page, despite The Marshall Project data tracker naming Florida No. 1 nationwide in inmate COVID deaths. More inmates have been killed by the coronavirus in Florida state prisons than in the entire federal prison system, according to the tracker, which compiles data from official sources around the nation.

The only words on the state corrections department home page even hinting at the pandemic are “modified visitation,” a phrase that links readers to a page describing policies that reinstated visitation in October after a seven-month suspension and further relaxed the rules two weeks ago.

Also, there is no site search button to help readers find information on the extent of COVID-19 in Florida state prisons.

Instead, a reader would have to happen upon the “Newsroom” page, which includes a hyperlink to another page that once supplied myriad details daily about infections, deaths and diagnostic testing among inmates and employees at each prison.

That data, like mention of coronavirus on the home page, has gone missing from the website.

Newly formatted COVID-19 report as updated Dec. 30, 2020. Source: Florida Department of Corrections website

Sometime since Dec. 11, the data page was scrubbed and replaced with one that supplies minimal statistics in summary.

“The new look to the FDC COVID-19 information pages provides important context and better reflects the current situation in Florida’s correctional system regarding COVID-19,” wrote new Corrections Department Press Secretary Paul W. Walker in answer to Phoenix questions about the change.

The new look amplifies certain statistics by posting them in much larger font. For instance: the statistic “97 percent” is very prominent in stating what share of the 17,537 infected inmates was “cleared” to leave isolation and return to regular housing units. The old format made it equally plain that the remaining 507 inmates were not cleared, and in fact nearly 200 of them died.

At the Phoenix’s request, Walker supplied by email a more detailed report, like the one the Department of Corrections had published for months.

It mirrors the bottom-line data posted on the reformatted web page, but the details underlying the totals are striking.

A detailed Florida Department of Corrections COVID-19 prison-by-prison data report, published on its website May 5, 2020.

For example, the website states 380 inmates were in “medical isolation” as of Dec. 30, while the prison-by-prison report supplied by Walker shows 278 of those were at just one prison – Lawtey Correctional Institution in Bradford County, in rural northeast Florida, where another 505 were in “medical quarantine” after known exposure to infected persons.

Further, the detailed report shows 3,553 inmates systemwide in medical quarantine for the same reason, a data point no longer posted on the website.

In the new format, the department reported through Dec. 30 that 20 prison facilities have active cases of COVID-19. Under a hyperlink, it lists those prisons, but it no longer cites how many inmates are sick at each one.

The detailed report from Walker shows that all 50 of the prison system’s major prisons and seven other prison facilities have had active cases (often in the hundreds, based on data monitoring by the Phoenix).

The website’s COVID page as posted Dec. 30 cites 191 inmate deaths systemwide but doesn’t say where or when those people died.

To know where the deaths occurred, one must hop over to the Florida Department of Health website and scroll down to the ninth listed report. It reports through Monday that 189 inmates died of COVID at 38 prisons around the state – ranging from just one death to as many as 43.

The death toll since the first COVID fatality on April 9 includes 43 inmate deaths and two staff fatalities at Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, 22 inmate deaths at South Florida Reception Center in Doral, and 13 inmate deaths at Union Correctional Institution in Union County.

As to staff, the corrections website reports 4,389 employees have tested positive at some point in the pandemic, of which 3,767 were “cleared to return to work” — or 86 percent, as published in the large font.

The website does not mention employee deaths, which the Department of Health cites as four.