As women at Coleman federal prison in Florida fight Legionnaires', men report feeling sick

One inmate, 33, died at the federal prison despite being a healthy man, according to his friends
7/6/01 Coleman, Fl.   Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Fl. in Sumter County. The prison's women's camp has confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease
7/6/01 Coleman, Fl. Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Fl. in Sumter County. The prison's women's camp has confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease [ Times (2001) ]
Published Feb. 25, 2020

Weeks after the women’s camp at a Florida federal prison began coping with an unexplained worsening outbreak of Legionnaires disease, men in another section of the same sprawling prison complex have reported feeling sick — and one just died.

The inmate was 33 years old and, except for asthma, seemingly in robust health, family members and friends said. The cause has not been determined, however, and a prison spokeswoman said there have been no Legionnaires cases in the men’s medium-security compound, where the death occurred.

Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, near Ocala, is the nation’s largest federal prison complex, with multiple facilities across a sprawling campus.

After weeks of complaints about respiratory illnesses and weeks of silence from the administration, the prison confirmed in late January that inmates at the small women’s camp had been diagnosed with Legionnaires Disease. The pneumonia-like illness spreads through water, including airborne droplets.

The scope of the outbreak has see-sawed. As of Feb. 11, the prison system said 23 women tested positive for Legionnella, the bacteria tied to Legionnaires disease.

Days later, the number of “confirmed” Legionnaires cases was reported to be two.

On Tuesday, Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Nancy Ayers said in an email: “At this time, there are four confirmed cases of Legionella and 29 suspect cases.” She said the cases are confined to the minimum-security women’s camp.

Some women who have reported symptoms have told relatives that they were not given test results, meaning they don’t know what’s wrong with them.

Ayers said no testing has been done in the rest of the prison complex, consisting of several facilities housing 6,100 inmates overall, because there are no suspected cases. She said inmate deaths are not unheard of, and that there have been 14 in the past year. She said there are no current plans to relocate inmates.

Gerald Davis, also known as Jerald, died over the weekend at the men’s medium-security compound.

Davis had asked for medical treatment about four times before he was eventually taken to the hospital, complaining that he didn’t feel well and had trouble breathing, said Truvonda Taylor, whose son is an inmate at Coleman and who knew Davis since childhood.

Despite his asthma, Davis was active and worked out often. He guzzled water to stay hydrated, said Lisa Jackson, whose son was incarcerated with Davis.

Jackson’s son told her he’s been buying his own water since before Davis died because he didn’t want to feel weak like the other inmates had become, which he feels is because of the water. He said some are so ill they can barely walk, and that some are passing out.

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“Even though my son doesn’t have any symptoms now, what about when he comes home?” Jackson said.

The prison was on lockdown Saturday for treatment of the water system. One woman, who has a fiance at the medium-security compound, said inmates were supposed to get tested but didn’t. Her fiance, who she doesn’t want named for fear of retaliation, said on Monday a man went to seek medical treatment and fainted on the walk over, and another inmate was taken away in an ambulance.

Taylor said the prison has a reputation for substandard medical treatment. In 2018, her son broke his arm playing football. He suffered for a week before he was sent to a hospital, where they fitted him a cast. It happened only after Taylor gave an ultimatum, saying she’d show up with her lawyer.

She and other family members said male inmates weren’t told by the prison about the Legionnaires outbreak at the women’s camp. They found out through word of mouth after media outlets published articles and after inmate families connected on social media.

“How are you gonna allow the women to know and not the men to know,” Taylor said.

Denise Bonfilio, who has been in Coleman for more than a year and spoke to the Miami Herald in a video chat, said out of three facilities she has been in since she began her sentence in March 2014, Coleman is “by far is the worst.”

She said the living quarters are “dilapidated” with unfinished floors and exposed pipes and air vents, adding the bathrooms are covered in mold, the water doesn’t drain properly and shower heads have recently been removed, leaving just a hole for the water to come out.

“Picture a really bad public bathroom at the beach,” she said. “It’s worse than that.”

Bonfilio said inmates first started developing flu-like symptoms in December, but no women were seen because sick-call — or open clinic hours — was closed for about two weeks around the holidays.

By the end of December, Bonfilio said she was sick and coughing severely. On Dec. 30, sick call was open for one day. She said she wasn’t seen by a doctor, but was given breathing medication that is inhaled and a chest X-Ray. She never got the results back from the X-ray.

She said it is impossible to believe that only four women have the disease.

“They are trying to cover it up,” she said.

She said it was not until Jan. 28 that inmates were sent an email by the warden notifying them of the Legionnaires outbreak. She said staff knew as early as Jan. 20 because an email was sent to department heads and some staffers had resorted to wearing masks. After inmates complained that they couldn’t get masks,officers were eventually told not to wear them.

She said this past weekend the Department of Health showed up with a court order to test water sources. She added that the water was shut off completely Saturday, in both women and men’s facilities.

She said as of Monday, the water was back, but running yellow.

Coleman has been plagued by problems in recent months, including a lawsuit filed by several female inmates who say they habitually faced sexual abuse by staff.

Miami Herald staff writer Ben Conarck contributed to this report.