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Women’s prison in Florida becomes COVID-19 nightmare

Although Lowell Correctional is by far the largest women’s prison in Florida, Homestead Correctional Institution has emerged as the COVID-19 hot spot.

Amanda Nevins’ 56-year-old sister, an inmate at Homestead Correctional Institution, tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday night. The woman, who has underlying medical conditions and has served 35 years, “has never been so scared.”

She watched as the women were moved “from dorm to dorm, dorm to dorm” for the past couple of weeks with no one being tested.

“I’ve been feeling bad before all this started happening,” the woman, who Nevins asked not to be identified, wrote in an email. “I love you, I’m handling it. I cried about it, now I’m must accepting it.”

Florida women’s prisons are already riddled with sexual and emotional abuse, often by male corrections officers. Now one in Homestead has become overrun with COVID-19.

At the same time, the Miami Herald was provided videos from two female inmates, one each from Lowell Correctional and Florida Women’s Reception Center, in which they discuss how avoiding the virus is near impossible in a prison setting.

Deidre Hunt, an inmate serving a life sentence at Lowell, said in her video message that she fears the nurses caring for the sick could spread it to others. Without testing, which has barely occurred in Lowell, it’s hard to tell who has it. At Lowell — one of the largest women’s prisons in the nation, with about 1,456 inmates — a mere 11 tests have been administered and all have come back negative.

“One case will spread and we could have a little Italy,” she said, alluding to that country’s outbreak.

Although Lowell is by far the largest women’s prison in Florida, Homestead has emerged as the COVID-19 hot spot. The number of reported cases among inmates rose from two on Sunday to 73 Monday afternoon. Two staff members are also infected.

Perhaps most startling was the rate of positives among the tests that have come back: 70 percent.

Seventy-three tests came back positive, 30 came back negative and another 616 test results were pending.

The cases mark a steady uptick in testing across the Florida prison system, where 723 inmates and 199 staff members have tested positive. Forty inmates are in “medical isolation” with symptoms, and 5,468 are in “medical quarantine” after having contact with someone who got sick. Across the system, there are 1,025 pending tests. Nine inmates have died of COVID-19, all men over 60.

According to emails and texts provided to the Miami Herald from advocates, women at Homestead have been reporting loss of taste, loss of smell and coughing for weeks. Women in one dorm reported that an inmate with a 102-degree fever was sent back to the dorm with three Tylenol.

One of the women who tested positive, who is 30 years into a life sentence for drug trafficking, is “fighting for her life” in the prison infirmary, an inmate said in email messages.

Homestead Correctional — adjacent to Dade Correctional Institution, which houses men — has the capacity to hold 668 women.

But before they were tested, the women were being moved from dorm to dorm in an attempt to sequester people who may have had contact with the initial two women who tested positive.

“Normally, they don’t do moves like that,” said Debra Bennett, an advocate for women inmates who herself served nearly two decades in Florida’s prison system. “I feel like Homestead was trying to get a hold of the situation. They were trying to guess at who may have been affected. It’s just not possible.”

Bennett shared emails she received from women in Homestead, who said they are fairly confused about what is happening, especially regarding the moves.

“I don’t know what the hell is going on, but a lot is going on,” one woman wrote Monday morning.

However, some emails indicated that many women had tested positive who were not showing symptoms.

“Yesterday medical came and addressed each of us individually and confirmed we had COVID-19, all 70 of us,” said another, who was not feeling sick to begin with.

Other women’s facilities across the state are starting to see a rise in cases, including Gadsden Correctional Facility, a privately managed prison that has nine positive inmates, 15 positive staffers and 26 pending tests. Sources say that number will likely rise overnight, as all inmates were being tested Monday afternoon.

Other facilities that aren’t showing many cases are not testing. At Florida Women’s Reception Center, just one inmate has been tested. Hernando Correctional Institution has tested just two.

At the reception center, located like Lowell in Ocala, one inmate said “precautions being taken are contradictory.”

Florida Women’s Reception center inmate Lana Blair, in a video shared with the Herald, said the guards who work in her dorm are not wearing protective equipment, and that the cleaning supplies the women are being given are “watered down.”

The video was reportedly made in late March. The Florida Department of Corrections has since had inmates manufacture face masks for use by corrections officers.

“Being told to separate is impossible. We are sleeping 12 inches from other inmates in a dorm of 86 women who share 12 toilets and nine showers,” said Blair, serving nine years on various charges.

The Department of Corrections in a statement released Monday evening said inmates were being reassigned ”based on their testing results and medical needs/symptoms per CDC guidelines.”

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