TALLAHASSEE — The email from the warden came Tuesday evening, bearing bad news.
Londell Woodbury, a correctional officer who worked at Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, died from complications related to COVID-19, Warden Joseph Edwards wrote in an email to prison employees in Northeast Florida.
Woodbury was 23. He took a job as a Florida correctional officer in May to chase a dream of becoming a detective, his mother Lawana Brown said. She was proud of him, though she worried that Woodbury was asked to work in units that housed inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19, a disease that has sickened at least 122 workers and 305 inmates at the prison.
“They really put him in a lot of risk,” Brown said. “I felt scared about the job, but I didn’t want to take his dream. I didn’t… I didn’t know how dangerous it was.”
Woodbury’s last shift at the prison was Sept. 17, when he “went out with COVID-19 concerns,” Edwards wrote to employees. He died 15 days later, on Oct. 2.
Florida Department of Corrections officials on Thursday declined to comment on Woodbury’s cause of death, citing “privacy laws.” His death is not reflected on the state’s COVID-19 prison death report, which is updated every Wednesday and shows three COVID-19 deaths of workers statewide.
The lack of transparency mirrors past instances in which the department either delayed or failed to reveal key information about COVID-19, including deaths, as the virus tore through the state’s prison system.
In April, department officials failed to confirm two inmate COVID-19 deaths at a privately run prison for nearly a week. Then, in August, the department was late to acknowledge the death of Jackson Correctional Institution officer Robert "Wayne Rogers, the first state prison officer who died of COVID-19, and the death of Joseph “Joe” Foster, an officer at Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala.
As of Thursday, the Florida Police Benevolent Association has independently confirmed six coronavirus-related deaths among correctional workers since the start of the pandemic in March. State reports, however, show three worker COVID-19 deaths.
Union complains about lack of information
Jim Baiardi, a union representative, said it has been difficult to get confirmation from the department when workers die from COVID-19. But with the help of family members, union officials say they have been able to confirm three more COVID-19-related deaths than the state is reporting. They include Woodbury and Leroy J. Tucker Jr., a correctional officer assigned to Hardee Correctional Institution.
“His [Tucker Jr.'s] mother informed me that he passed away in the hospital from COVID-19 last month,” Baiardi wrote in a Facebook post Sept. 30. “Please join us in praying for his family, friends and co-workers during this difficult time.”
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Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the information reported by the union about Tucker Jr. “does not match our records.” But she did not explain further.
“Confirmation from a medical examiner is required for staff listings, sometimes there can be a significant delay in staff deaths being reported,” Glady said Wednesday in an email to the Times/Herald.
On Thursday, after being asked about Woodbury’s death, Glady responded with a statement: “The department is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Correctional Officer Londell Woodbury. The entire FDC family passes on our condolences and prayers to the family, however the Florida Department of Corrections is not allowed to officially provide confirmation on his cause of death, due to privacy laws.”
Baiardi said the lag in reporting from the department is “unacceptable” and is calling on the department to be more transparent when reporting prison worker deaths.
“If a correction officer succumbs to this deadly disease, it is imperative for the Department of Corrections to notify the PBA and the public about the death to allow the officer’s law enforcement family to mourn his or her life, while also saluting them for their sacrifices,” Baiardi said. “No other law enforcement agency we represent would fail to inform us if a member died while protecting the public.”
Brown said her son’s funeral will be held on Friday. She has compiled dozens of photos that will show Woodbury as a young athlete, from years past when he played football and competed in cross country and track.
She hopes people remember him as a “golden-hearted young man, one that would give you anything he had” and the “best big brother in the world.”
“He started the job as a corrections officer because he wanted to be a detective, so he started out the job I guess as a stepping stone,” Brown said. “He had a sparkle in his eye when he was doing that, he loved helping people.”
Mom contracted COVID, too
But the job ended up getting them sick. Brown, who took care of Woodbury up until he died, said she tested positive for COVID-19, too. Brown, 45, tested negative for the virus in recent days but she says she still has a cough and feels fatigued.
“A lot of guards are getting sick,” Browne said. “Everybody that I talk to says they got COVID-19 and a family member got COVID-19, too.”
Baiardi said the union is trying to be proactive about confirming correctional officers' deaths because the union offers families benefits if the officer died from COVID-19.
Glady said the department tracks all staff absences, when asked how the department is keeping tabs on employees who get sick and are off work for an extended period of time.
In the case of Woodbury, the warden at the prison said they had trouble reaching him after he got sick because his personnel records only had his personal cell phone listed as a contact number. His uncle called the prison on Tuesday to let them know about the “tragic news,” Edwards wrote to employees.
“In addition to tracking staff absences, the leadership teams ensure staff have access to any support that is needed,” Glady said.
Brown said a prison official at Reception and Medical Center called her to offer condolences after her son died and asked if the family needed any help. But she did not know what to say.
“At that time, really there was nothing they could do because my son passed away,” she said. “I really didn’t know what to ask for or what they could do.”
On Wednesday, Brown said she hopes the department can offer more protections to correctional officers, like her son.
“They need to make sure that they’re protecting the correctional officers because they’re putting their life on the line every time they go in there,” she said. “My big thing with this is nobody else needs to lose their child … he was only 23.”
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