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Florida Panhandle prison continues to see rise in coronavirus cases

Four inmates who have tested positive are housed at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison operated by The Geo Group Inc.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Apr. 6, 2020|Updated Apr. 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Four inmates at a Northwest Florida prison have tested positive for COVID-19, doubling the tally of confirmed cases within the facility’s inmate population in 24 hours, state corrections officials said Monday.

The four inmates are housed at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison operated by The Geo Group Inc. The prisoners at the Milton facility are the only inmates in the state who have been confirmed as testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Five workers at the prison have also contracted the highly contagious virus, according to corrections officials.

The Florida Department of Corrections last week confirmed that a handful of employees at the Panhandle prison had tested positive for COVID-19. Over the weekend, the state agency reported that two inmates at Blackwater also had the virus. But agency officials have not revealed when or how the inmates were exposed to the virus, or provided a timeline of when they became symptomatic.

The Geo Group referred questions about the infected inmates to the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees the Boca Raton-based company’s prison contract.

Department of Management Services spokeswoman Rose Hebert said Monday that officials at the Milton prison every four hours are taking the temperatures of inmates who are elderly, are considered at risk for the virus or are in medical isolation.

The state agency and The Geo Group “are doing everything we can to inhibit the spread” of the virus, DMS Secretary Jonathan Satter told The News Service of Florida Monday.

“It’s a challenge in a closed-out environment like that, but we are doing everything we can,” he said.

Satter was unable to say how many inmates have been tested at Blackwater or at South Bay Correctional Facility, which is also operated by The Geo Group. A worker at the Palm Beach County facility also has tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are working with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health to instantly, or promptly do testing on all those (individuals) in the immediate proximity,” Satter said during Monday’s interview.

In an email Monday evening, Hebert said “individuals who present COVID-19 symptoms and have a known exposure to the virus are tested,” but did not provide the number of inmates who had been screened or put in medical isolation at Blackwater.

“When DOH (the Department of Health) receives notification that a person has tested positive for COVID-19, the department conducts an extensive epidemiological investigation to identify individuals who may have had close contact with the virus. Those individuals are self-isolated for 14 days after their exposure to the virus,” she wrote.

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Florida corrections officials also have not said how many inmates at facilities operated by the state have been tested for the virus.

As the number of COVID-19 cases balloon across the state, corrections workers, inmates and their families have become increasingly worried about the possibility of an outbreak within Florida’s prison system.

Last week, corrections officials began issuing daily updates about the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases within the prison system, which has 143 facilities, more than 24,000 employees and roughly 94,000 inmates.

The latest tally on Monday showed that 29 Florida Department of Corrections employees, who work at 14 prisons and three probation offices across the state, have tested positive for the virus.

Twelve of the 14 prisons are run by the state corrections department.

While it is unknown how many inmates have been screened or have 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 testing,” the corrections agency said in a Monday announcement.

“Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all medically necessary medical and behavioral treatment is one of FDC’s 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.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jeff Brandes urged corrections officials to be transparent about what is going on behind bars in the nation’s third-largest prison system.

“My encouragement to the department is to continue to over communicate. They need to be very straightforward and tell people exactly how many people have been identified,” Brandes said in an interview last week.

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