Florida prison

Florida prison officials said Friday, April 3 that county inmates who are transferring to state prisons are expected to be quarantined for 28-day periods to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Corrections officials said they have asked county jails to quarantine inmates who are scheduled to be moved to state prisons for 14 days before the transfers. Once the inmates arrive at the prisons, they will be placed on another 14-day quarantine before they mix with the general inmate population. officials said.

“We appreciate Florida’s law enforcement community working with us as we took this preventative measure and move forward with a new protocol during this evolving health emergency,” state Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement Friday.

The move is a new precaution by the department as prison workers, inmates and their loved ones grow more fearful of a potential coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

When quarantined at state prisons, “inmates will be socially distanced as much as possible within their housing unit,” officials said. Inmates will also be served meals within their housing units, officials said.

“Medical staff will monitor the inmates twice daily to ensure no inmates show symptoms or illness,” Department of Corrections officials said in a statement. “At the conclusion of the entire quarantine, the inmates will be moved to the general population and the entire dormitory will be sanitized.”

The Department of Corrections and the Department of Health have not provided a tally of inmates who have been tested.

This all occurs after two inmates at a Northwest Florida prison tested positive for COVID-19, the Florida Department of Corrections said Sunday.

The inmates were 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.

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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News Service Florida contributed to the information in this report.

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