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First Florida state prisoners test positive; ‘ticking time bomb’ feared

Twenty-three prison staff members and contract staff had already been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

After weeks of assuring the public there are no cases of coronavirus among the state’s nearly 95,000 prisoners — without saying whether significant numbers of prisoners had been tested — the Florida Department of Corrections acknowledged its first positive test involving an inmate. That was quickly followed by a second.

One lawmaker, a Democrat, called the situation in the state’s prison system, which employs 24,000 staffers, a “ticking time bomb,” although another, a Republican, said the department was doing an “exceptional job.”

Michelle Glady, a prison system spokeswoman, would not say how many inmates have been tested because “testing numbers are constantly changing.”

The first prisoner with the positive test, whose name was not released, had been locked up at the Blackwater River Correctional Facility near Pensacola, a private prison under the state’s purview run by the GEO Group. The information was posted on the department’s website Saturday. The website was updated Sunday to list a second inmate, also from Blackwater.

Twenty-three prison staff members and contract staff had already been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. In three cases, the department acknowledged the positive tests only after they were first reported by prison insiders to the Miami Herald, which contacted the prison system seeking confirmation and comment. After that, the department began to list positive tests by facility on its website. There were no inmate positives logged until Saturday.

The secretary of the department, Mark Inch, has not responded directly to requests from the Miami Herald to comment about the volume of testing for inmates and the safeguards the system is undertaking, although a list of policies has been posted on the website..

In the vacuum caused by lack of information, rumors have spread among prisoner families about large numbers of untested but symptomatic inmates. The department says it consults with county health departments on whether an inmate should be tested.

The Florida system has been criticized for years for, among other things, substandard healthcare and revolving-door administration. The inmates under its care often enter the system in poor health due to drug dependencies, poverty and lack of insurance and have sometimes gone to court over lack of access to prescribed medicine. Poor inmate health, an aging population and proximity to other inmates render Florida prisons vulnerable to a pandemic.

In other states like Florida with a high volume of COVID-19 and large incarcerated populations — Texas, Louisiana, and New York among them — cases have been acknowledged early on in correctional settings. Prison deaths linked to the coronavirus have popped up around the country, including four at one Louisiana facility.

But Florida’s Department of Corrections, the country’s third-largest state system, continued to report no inmate positives, much less deaths, until Saturday’s first acknowledged positive test.

Concerns over potentially pervasive spread have led other states to adopt proactive measures, such as early release of nonviolent inmates with minimal time left to serve. California, the nation’s largest system, is discharging 3,500 near the end of their stretches. Illinois announced a similar program.

“It was always a ticking time bomb waiting to happen,” said Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani, who represents Orange County.

“It’s seems highly unlikely that just one person was positive because of just how fast and easily COVID-19 is transmitted — and in prisons you can’t social distance,” Eskanami said, before the second case was posted. “I think it’s problematic. Even if they’re not lying. Perception really matters in these situations.”

The prisons have enforced social distancing during dining and recreation times, Inch wrote in a March 28 letter to families of the incarcerated.

As for other measures enacted by the FDC, co-pays for inmates with respiratory illness have been waived, staffers are cleaning and disinfecting facilities with more frequency and visitations have been suspended.

After a two-week suspension of new inmates being introduced into the prison system, the FDC resumed inmate intake this past Monday. The FDC had asked county jails to quarantine inmates for 14 days before sending them to prison when possible.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Winter Park Democrat, took to Twitter on Saturday asking why the department does not track and publish “person by person” testing results like the Department of Health does.

“We demand transparency,” Smith wrote.

Glady, the FDC spokeswoman, said the department is “committed to providing accurate data” about the number of positive coronavirus cases.

“If a test for COVID-19 is reported as positive, the health department will work with FDC to conduct a contact investigation with notification of all potentially impacted,” wrote Chris Taylor, a legislative specialist with the department, in an email to a lawmaker obtained by the Herald.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, said the FDC is doing an “exceptional job” caring for Florida’s inmates. Being more transparent about its testing numbers would earn the department more trust from the public, he said.

“The best thing that the department can do is to over-communicate and be completely transparent about what’s going on,” he said. “This is an incredibly challenging issue to deal with.”

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