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How Florida is failing to protect prison staffers from COVID

“Officers are throwing up in the corner, still being told they are OK to work,” said a union rep. “They feel like nobody cares about them.”

TALLAHASSEE — As the novel coronavirus crept into Florida and settled inside long-term care facilities where some of the state’s most vulnerable live, people in power took notice.

Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped allowing visitors to the facilities in March. By April, he was touring the state, touting the millions of pieces of personal protective equipment the state had bought for the facilities. And now, staff at the facilities are tested every two weeks. It’s all part of the effort to keep the deadly virus out of the confined facilities where vulnerable Floridians are trapped until the pandemic eases.

But all across the state, a separate group of Floridians — 96,000 of them — are locked away in similar conditions. They are sequestered from visitors and, much like long-term care residents, are getting COVID-19 as it spreads among them. Prisons, like nursing homes or assisted living facilities, have not been allowed visitors or extra activities like religious services since March.

Just like in long-term care facilities, the staff who work at the prisons also can be transmitters of the disease. Without proper protection and with no testing requirements whatsoever, they are scared of becoming victims, too.

“Officers are throwing up in the corner, still being told they are OK to work,” said the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s James Baiardi, who represents corrections officers. “They have no feeling of protection … they feel like nobody cares about them.”

Baiardi said some officers who tested positive have told the union that they are called back to work so long as they don’t have symptoms. The union has filed three unfair labor grievances against the Department of Corrections related to COVID-19, and has been pushing for hazard pay for officers, who are working overtime and picking up extra shifts. They share protective suits meant for one-time use and are given cloth masks that make it hard to breathe. Many sleep in their cars or in garages to avoid contact with their families.

“Why weren’t we prepared for this?” said Baiardi, who sent a letter to Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch explaining officers’ fears in late March.

Lacking information

Little information is known about infections among staff. Of the 28,000 prison staff who work across the state, 1,182 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon. None of them are required to get tested, and the department doesn’t say how many tests have come back negative or if any staff members have died of the virus. The voluntary tests are only offered on site at 15 of the 143 Department of Corrections facilities, which include both state-run and privately run facilities.

The Department of Health records deaths of prison staff. As of Thursday, there were none. 

As far as protections go, anecdotal reports from current staff and inmates shared with the Times/Herald say from prison to prison, protocol varies greatly. At Hernando Correctional Institution, for example, staff are screened in tents outside, complete with a pat-down for contraband and temperature check before they head to work. At Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, mask-wearing is less common and inmates say they see staff flouting the rules so they do, too.

On its site, the department says staff receive cloth masks made from prison uniform material and latex gloves, but say they have asked for face shields as well.

In a response to questions from the Times/Herald, the Department of Corrections noted it has offered voluntary testing to all staff and inmates at 15 state institutions. The department said it follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, including voluntary testing at institutions where positive cases are found.

After this story was published online, the Department of Corrections provided a statement assuring that “there is no shortage of supplies.”

“Staff have been supplied with more than 50,000 units of gowns and coveralls throughout the correctional institutions,” department spokeswoman Michelle Glady wrote in an email. “Cloth face coverings have been provided to inmates and staff. Staff have also been authorized to wear their own face coverings.”

The department did not dispute the lack of testing. 

Lawmakers from both parties are calling for more regular, mandatory prison staff testing. State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said the state should require regular testing for staffers like it does for assisted living facility employees. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said randomly selected staffers should get periodic rapid tests so the state can get ahead of potential future outbreaks.

“If you’re not getting the results rapidly, then what you’re getting is three- or four-day-old information,” Brandes said.

In states like Wisconsin, Maryland and Tennessee, all staff are being tested out of precaution. There is no such plan in place for Florida.

Years of budget cuts have consequences

The lack of supplies and testing have spotlighted budget cuts made under the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott. Those cuts were so deep that the low salaries and poor working conditions led to enormous turnover and exorbitant overtime costs at the troubled agency. In the last 10 years, the former governor and state legislators extracted millions from the prison system, first by shifting from 8- to 12-hour shifts to cut 3,700 jobs, then with a push to privatize prisons and prison healthcare.

Those cuts may now be contributing to the spread of the virus in Florida’s prisons. When prisons lose quarantined staffers to the virus, officers from other prisons — who live in communities where the virus may be spreading — have to come in to fill the scheduling holes, Brandes said.

Brandes’ Republican colleagues have not echoed Democrats’ call for a special legislative session to address that and other budget matters.

On the Department of Corrections website, it says the department has a plan in place “as a precautionary measure” if a large-scale officer absences were to take place. A department spokeswoman declined to share the plan with the Times/Herald, citing a public records exemption.

Donald Stanton, a recently-retired corrections officer who worked at Marion and Lowell correctional institutions, says many officers are working shifts at multiple prisons to make extra cash and help with staffing issues. But supplies are running low, and Stanton himself has even coordinated donation drop-offs for both inmates and staff. Stanton has a son who is incarcerated at South Bay Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in Palm Beach County.

Stanton says if he was still working, he would be staying on site in staff housing out of fear of bringing the virus home to his wife, who has breathing issues. He knows of some former colleagues who are even sleeping in separate rooms from their spouses at home or staying in makeshift garage apartments.

“I am glad that I am not an officer right now,” he said.

The News Service of Florida reported last week that state officials are launching emergency plans at two prisons with significant shortages due to COVID-19, requiring workers at Dade and Jefferson correctional institutions to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week.

Ron McAndrew, a former warden and current prison consultant, said he thinks Department Secretary Mark Inch is doing the best he can with extremely limited resources.

“He has an enemy,” McAndrew said. “And the enemy is called the budget.”

Another enemy for officials trying to keep the virus out of prisons: community spread. Because Florida routinely reports 10,000 new cases of coronavirus per day and positivity rates north of 10 percent, it’s become difficult to keep the virus out of isolated communities.

In May, when the pandemic looked to be under control in parts of the state, DeSantis frequently noted both prisons and assisted living facilities were secluded communities where cases can spread quickly. If a county saw a spike in cases then, it was likely because of an outbreak at such a facility, the governor said then.

But at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where the state has marshaled significant resources to keep the virus out, there’s been a 126 percent increase in cases among staffers since the beginning of July.

Debra Bennett, an advocate and formerly incarcerated woman who heads up a nonprofit support organization, says without uniform testing, prison staff and inmates are relying on masks and haphazard isolation strategies to keep the disease at bay.

So far, 38,427 tests have been administered to inmates. About 3,900 have tested positive.

Bennett has been coordinating drop-offs by the truckload for facilities that don’t have proper supplies (which is most of them, she said).

The prison staff welcome the extra supplies with open arms, she said. Many of the facilities are in need of necessities like toilet paper, bleach, cleaning wipes and face masks. Sometimes the masks she donates have a metal nose clip which inmates are not allowed to have, so officers can keep them for their own use.

“The only difference between a prison and a nursing home is many people are bedridden,” she said. “We have to focus on staff. Staff is the median between the incarcerated population and the real world. And DOC is failing all over the place.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of contract employees employed by the department, clarify that staff deaths are reported by the Department of Health, not the Department of Corrections and to include a statement provided after publication to reflect the department’s distribution of protective supplies for staff. )

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