Just days after the first corrections officer in Florida prisons died of COVID-19, a second officer died of the highly infectious disease, which has infected 9,180 inmates and 1,810 officers across the state prison system. Fifty-four inmates have died.
Joseph “Joe” Foster, 40, was remembered by family and friends as a devoted husband, father and proud U.S. Army veteran. He was hired by the state Department of Corrections in December 2009.
“We called him ‘the enforcer’ because he always took care of everybody,” said Cory Surles, a friend of Foster’s who served alongside him in Germany from 1997 to 1998. Surles confirmed that Foster died Monday night.
Surles said Foster, who had a wife of 15 years, two sons and a daughter, was a “family guy” who had a “heart of gold.” His last Facebook posts were about school reopenings, and how he feared the state would be putting children in danger if they sent them back to in-person instruction.
Foster lived in Gainesville, where he grew up. He graduated from Gainesville High School in 1994, according to his Facebook page.
His most recent assignment was at Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, where one inmate has died of COVID-19 and 472 are infected. Twenty-seven officers at the prison are sick with the disease.
The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The department confirmed Monday night that Robert “Wayne” Rogers, 65, was the first officer to die of COVID-19. Rogers, employed at the Graceville Work Camp, a subsidiary of Jackson Correctional Institution, died an hour after his wife, who also had COVID-19. Neither his nor Foster’s death is reflected on the Department of Health’s prison death report, which is updated once weekly.
Not even top brass have been spared exposure to the virus, which the prison has failed to contain. Department Secretary Mark Inch and Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon both tested positive for COVID-19 last Thursday after visiting Columbia Correctional Institution and attending a Florida Sheriff’s Association conference July 27.
Protections for corrections officers have become a focus of the Police Benevolent Association, which says officers have not received proper personal protective equipment or adequate access to testing. So many officers have gotten sick with the disease that the FDC is launching emergency plans at two prisons with significant staffing shortages, requiring workers at Dade and Jefferson correctional institutions to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week.
Surles says the loss of his friend has drawn people to Facebook to share memories of their friend, who they say died far too young. Friends called him “Big Joe” or “Coach” and looked to him as someone who got along with everyone he met, even though he had a “kind of scary” demeanor.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Surles said. “He was a loving, friendly guy.”
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.
LATEST ON CORONAVIRUS: Six things we’ve learned about the coronavirus since March.
MASK UPDATE: Find out where you have to wear a mask in Tampa Bay
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.
HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.