As COVID-19 spreads fast in Florida prisons, no vaccines have been given to its inmates

More than 4,000 inmates are 65 or older, meeting the state’s age group criteria.
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019.
Mark. S, Inch, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, at the State Capitol, May, 1, 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 10, 2021|Updated March 10, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Three months into Florida’s vaccination efforts, Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to make vaccines available to state prisons, even as corrections officials have requested doses and identified thousands of elderly inmates who meet the state’s eligibility requirements.

“The department is ready and willing to administer, but they have not received any supply,” Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Jason Pizzo said on Tuesday, after having a conversation with state prison officials.

Inmates who meet the state’s age group criteria could be waiting for the foreseeable future.

The governor’s office won’t say when supplies will be made available to the state Department of Corrections, only saying DeSantis has “made it clear” he will not prioritize inmates ahead of the other vulnerable populations and front-line workers.

DeSantis, for the most part, has taken a senior-centric approach to vaccinations. In January, Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch made a request for the state agency’s share of doses and identified 4,169 inmates who are 65 and older and met the state’s age group criteria.

“The Florida Department of Corrections is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available to our agency. We will ensure community level care is given to anyone under our care and custody who chooses to be vaccinated,” Inch said in a statement.

The number of state inmates who will meet the state’s age criteria will expand next week, when any Floridian who is 60 and older will become eligible for a coronavirus vaccine under a new state order.

Prison officials say they are doing outreach and providing information to inmates about the vaccine’s benefits and potential side effects, and the process of scheduling a shot when supplies become available.

Federal prisoners get shots

By comparison, nearly 1,200 inmates housed in federal detention facilities in Florida have been fully inoculated, meaning they have received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons data.

Five of the seven privately-run prisons in Florida, operated by The GEO Group, are following state guidelines for “the timing of vaccine distribution to staff, inmates and detainees.”

“GEO is a service provider and the facilities we manage are Florida state correctional facilities (they are not GEO facilities) and are required to follow strict contractual requirements as well as state policies, procedures, standards and guidelines,” a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement. “As such, the Florida state correctional facilities we manage are required to follow the same vaccination guidelines as all Florida state correctional facilities.”

Spokesperson Meredith Beatrice would not provide an estimate for when inmates could expect to gain access to the vaccine. When asked if the state would make shots available to them when Floridians of all ages get access, she would not specify. Instead, she said DeSantis will “evaluate data” to determine next steps.

Pizzo, D-Miami, says he believes the data is already there.

In Florida, nearly 18,000 inmates — or roughly 22% of the prison population — have contracted the virus. And 210 prisoners have died from COVID-19 complications while as of Wednesday, state data shows.

Risk is much higher

Compared to Florida’s general population, state inmates are 81% more likely to die from COVID-19, according to data from the state Department of Health.

“COVID death rate in our prisons is about 80% higher than outside,” Pizzo posted on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Not one single vaccine has been offered to Florida inmates. No 65 year olds. No 70 year olds. Or 75 year olds. No one.”

Public health experts have also found incarcerated people are among those who are most vulnerable to contract the virus. A study from Johns Hopkins University, for example, found inmates are three times more likely to die and five times more likely to become infected than the general population.

Inmates are not the only one who are vulnerable inside prisons. Prison staff are at risk, too.

Over the past year, more than 5,600 corrections workers — including nurses, correctional officers, custodians and other prison staff — have contracted COVID-19. At least six of them have died from complications of the disease. The union that represents prison staff, however, says it believes coronavirus-related deaths among staff is higher than reported by the state.

Florida Department of Health officials have asked some corrections workers, including nurses and doctors who have direct contact with patients, to seek appointments for the vaccines regardless of age. They ask them to contact their local hospital or county health department. The number of prison workers who have been vaccinated to date is not known.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

Get updates via text message: ConText, our free text messaging service about politics news, brings you the latest from this year's Florida legislative session.

Sign up for our newsletter: Get Capitol Buzz, a special bonus edition of The Buzz with Steve Contorno, each Saturday while the Legislature is meeting.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.