Northwest Florida private prison now has 34 cases of coronavirus

Blackwater River Correctional Facility is in Santa Rosa County.
Check for the latest breaking news and updates.
Check for the latest breaking news and updates. [ Times ]
Published April 12, 2020

TALLAHASSEE —Four more inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at a Northwest Florida private prison where a total of 40 people have contracted the highly contagious virus, the Florida Department of Corrections said Saturday.

Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a Santa Rosa County prison operated by The Geo Group Inc., now has a total of 34 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Six prison employees also have tested positive for COVID-19, corrections officials said.

The Milton facility, which has a maximum capacity of 2,000 inmates, is so far the state's hardest-hit prison amid the coronavirus pandemic.

All but one of the state’s 35 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 are located at the Panhandle facility. The other prisoner is housed at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, corrections officials said.

As of Saturday, 44 corrections employees at 20 prisons and three probation offices across the state also have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections' website.

Inmates housed at Blackwater — and their loved ones — have been sounding the alarm about prison officials’ response to the virus, which has caused 458 deaths in Florida as of Saturday evening. No inmates or prison staff have died from COVID-19, according to the corrections agency.

Natausha Hunt told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday that her son, Gary Ford, had been in quarantine with dozens of inmates at Blackwater for more than two weeks.

“He called me panicking and scared, and said, ‘Momma, they are leaving us here to die,’ ” a sobbing Hunt said in a telephone interview.

Hunt said Friday that her son had not been tested for the virus, although he has been coughing. Ford fears he may be infected with the virus because he is housed with inmates who have been tested for COVID-19, Hunt said.

Florida Department of Corrections officials declined to comment on Ford’s account, citing federal regulations protecting patients’ confidential health information.

State officials, however, maintain they are taking many precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

In prisons operated by the state, new inmates are placed in quarantine, the temperature of inmates who are in medical quarantine is taken twice daily, and inmates in the general population can ask questions and request a temperature check, the Department of Corrections said in an email Wednesday morning.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Management Services, which oversees contracts with private prison operators, said Tuesday The Geo Group was taking extra measures to stem the outbreak at Blackwater.

The Santa Rosa County health department, which helps test inmates housed at Blackwater Correctional Facility and Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, is conducting random testing of staff and employees, Debbie Stilphen, a spokeswoman with the county agency, told the News Service on Tuesday.

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“We are randomly sampling staff and inmates from different pods based on the number of specimen containers available,” Stilphen said in an email.

Stilphen said the county has enough tests to meet the demand of symptomatic inmates at the two prisons.

“The reason we are doing the sampling is to find out who might need to be tested in the process of our investigation,” Stilphen said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has not revealed how many inmates have been tested for COVID-19 in Florida’s prison system, which houses roughly 94,000 inmates in 145 facilities statewide. State officials also won’t say how many prisoners are in medical isolation due to the virus.

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