A number of inmates at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex’s women’s camp have been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, a kind of pnumonia, according to a Bureau of Prisons spokesman.
At least a dozen inmates have gone to the hospital for treatment, according to women at the camp. They described long lines at sick call and health issues persisting for weeks. Coleman, a prison located south of Ocala, is the largest federal complex in the nation. The women’s satellite camp has 409 inmates.
The prison is working with the Florida Department of Health to investigate the source and take precautionary measures, the spokesman said.
Women at the camp and their families outside say the deteriorating building made it ripe for a problem, that staff hasn’t been upfront about the issue and that they’ve had to fend for their own health.
Paul Forkner, a 71-year-old Lakeland resident, said his daughter has been emailing him about the prison’s terrible conditions. She wrote about mold in the bathroom and sewage that spills over. Forkner’s daughter said in places there are chunks of the ceiling missing and air units patched up with plastic bags and T-shirts.
“They have neglected this place and our complaints and now we are literally sitting in an infested area,” she wrote. “People keep going to the hospital. Today someone fainted in the kitchen because they are so sick. It’s really crazy.”
Legionnaires is a severe type of pneumonia that spreads through the water system and droplets in the air, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most outbreaks occur in large buildings because of the complex pipe system.
Kenn Brown, a Palmetto resident, said he’s gotten emails for two weeks from his niece about people being sick. She, and other women in the camp, said the inmates have had to buy their own clean water from commissary instead of being given it for free. They had been told to drink other water at their own risk, he said.
One man’s wife said the commissary ran out of bottled water on Monday.
Forkner’s daughter wrote that officials were walking around wearing facial masks, and that when she asked for one they said “there isn’t enough for everyone.”
A Coleman spokesman did not answer if the inmates were given masks or bottled water.
Last week, an inmate sentenced to Coleman was turned away at the gate and rerouted to a Miami prison. Her mother, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said Coleman officials met them at the bus in hazmat suits and said they weren’t taking any new inmates at the time.
One man, who also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said his wife saw a woman cough so badly she spit up something that looked “like chicken liver,” he said.
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He said it’s frustrated him that the prison hadn’t released a memo about what was happening.
As of Wednesday evening, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said that staff and inmates had been notified. But women and family members said they had been working off rumors, panicked, for days before.
The man said even as his wife, an elderly inmate, was taken to the hospital, she struggled to understand what was happening. Though he said she hasn’t gotten Legionnaires yet, he worries she could get it because she’s elderly.
“She could hardly breathe,” he said. “She should be given antibiotics right now, she could still get sick."
In December, fourteen women who are or had been incarcerated at Coleman put forward a lawsuit saying the guards had sexually abused and assaulted them for years.
One inmate, who is part of the federal lawsuit against the prison for sexual abuse, said she was scared of dying inside and worried officials weren’t treating her properly because she spoke out. She said she wants control over her own medical care and doesn’t trust the prison employees.
She had been sick for weeks before the Legionnaires’ outbreak but wasn’t able to get proper treatment at the hospital, she said. With her preexisting health conditions and fear that the staff is trying to punish her for speaking out, she worries about her future. She said she doesn’t want to die at Coleman.
Gina Hernandez, a former Coleman inmate who is still close with the women inside, said she feels the staff has been negligent, especially after the women came forward about the abuse they faced.
In her experience with the prison, it’s not abnormal. She said the guards often prioritize the men’s camps, which have more inmates and take up more space, than the smaller women’s camp.
“At the end of the day we’re the last ones that get taken care of,” she said. “We get the worst food, the worst commissary. The men are more important than the women.”