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Fifth inmate dies of COVID-19 at NW Florida prison

All five inmates who have died were over 65.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Apr. 28, 2020

A 72-year-old inmate at a Northwest Florida prison has died as a result of COVID-19, the local medical examiner’s office confirmed on Monday.

He was the fifth inmate incarcerated at the Blackwater River Correctional Facility to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. All of the inmates who have died were over 65.

Dana Peterson, who had begun a 27-year sentence in 2018, died April 27 of complications related to COVID-19 at the Santa Rosa Medical Center, according to Jeff Martin, the director of the medical examiner’s office that oversees Santa Rosa County.

Blackwater River Correctional Facility inmate Dana Peterson, 72, died as a result of COVID-19, the local medical examiner’s office confirmed.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility inmate Dana Peterson, 72, died as a result of COVID-19, the local medical examiner’s office confirmed. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

Peterson’s death brings the total death toll among inmates to five among the state’s roughly 95,000 inmates.

The first inmate deaths weren’t acknowledged by the Florida Department of Corrections for six days — and only after a news organization revealed them.

As of Monday afternoon, 10 workers and 48 inmates at Blackwater River, a prison operated by Geo Group, had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections. The outbreak of cases at Blackwater was first reported on March 30, when corrections officials said two workers at the private prison had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Santa Rosa County health department, which helps test inmates housed at Blackwater River and the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, is conducting random testing of staff and employees to determine who could be infected, the News Service of Florida previously reported.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to comment on Peterson’s death.

It’s been nearly two months since the first COVID-19 cases in Florida started to pop up, but just 10 days since the FDC started to publicly list how many inmates and employees have been tested for the disease.

As of Monday afternoon, 197 inmates had been diagnosed with the disease. Twenty inmates have been put in medical isolation after showing symptoms, and 3,829 more are in medical quarantine, meaning they had close contact with a person who has tested positive or exhibited symptoms.

In total, 439 inmates had been tested for the virus. Of those, 222 had come up negative, and 20 were awaiting results.

Statewide, 126 staffers have come down with the virus, many of them in state prisons run by private contractors. With hundreds more out sick, according to state lawmakers who have seen sick leave numbers, the Department of Corrections has lowered the minimum age to be a corrections officer and is offering $1,000 bonuses for new recruits.

Florida’s aging prison population, like the state as a whole, is threatened by the highly contagious virus, which has had an outsized impact on older people. There are currently about 23,000 Florida inmates over 50, a population that has increased by 12.5% over the past five years as the overall prison population has shrunk.

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During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers proposed bills to help streamline the process of releasing sick or elderly inmates — populations most at risk of dying from the disease. Both bills went nowhere.

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