Photo via Florida Department of Corrections
Approximately 2,300 corrections workers have had to self-quarantine or self-isolate due to potential exposure to COVID-19, Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said Tuesday.
The corrections workers “have had to sit in ‘time out’ ” after answering questions that revealed they could have been exposed to the highly contagious novel coronavirus, Inch said.
“I know each one of them did not want to shift the burden of their post or responsibilities to their comrades. But they correctly saw the greater danger of placing them and our inmates and offenders at risk with coming to work,” Inch said in a statement provided to The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Florida Department of Corrections officials did not reveal the positions held by the workers but said a “significant” number of the employees work at prisons.
Florida Police Benevolent Association leaders worry that already-low staffing levels at state prisons will be exacerbated by workers who are quarantined due to the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease known as COVID-19.
Jim Biardi, who leads the union’s state corrections chapter, said some corrections workers have already been asked to help at other prisons that can be farther from their residences. Others who have been asked to self-quarantine are fearful of bringing the virus home, Biardi said.
“I’ve heard from two or three that are sleeping in a garage in their house, because they're afraid that if they go inside the house that they’re going to get their wife and kids sick,” Biardi said in an interview Monday.
Corrections officials said prisons have not “experienced any degradation in security operations as a result of staff absences,” but the agency has plans to address “large-scale officer absences," should they occur.
According to a report released by the Florida Department of Corrections on Tuesday, 174 corrections workers across the state have tested positive for COVID-19.
"FDC is committed to providing the number of positive test results in the employee sector that has contact with the inmate or offender population and has done so since the beginning of this evolving health emergency," officials said.
Corrections officials, however, have refused to reveal the number of employees who have undergone testing, a metric that is used to determine the infection rate among the department’s workforce.
“FDC employees are members of the general public and are not required to report pending or negative test results,” the agency said in a statement.
In the same statement, officials revealed that voluntary tests have been conducted on a total of 230 workers at Tomoka Correctional Institution and Sumter Correctional Institution. The department expanded testing for asymptomatic staff at the facilities in the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Six of the 230 workers who volunteered received positive results, officials said.
Greg Newburn, the Florida director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has called on the corrections department to release the number of employees who have been tested statewide to allow the public to know the rate of infection among the prison workforce.
“We know other states are releasing that data, so there does not seem to be any kind of safety risk or privacy risk in releasing just the staff testing numbers,” Newburn said in an interview Monday.
Some states, such as Pennsylvania, publicize the number of negative, positive and pending test results for corrections workers, said Newburn, whose organization pushes for changes in the criminal justice system.
As of Tuesday, 790 Florida prisoners have undergone testing for COVID-19. Half of the inmates whose results are final have tested positive, corrections officials said Tuesday. The positive test rate among inmates has increased by 5 percent since April 29, according to data provided by the department.
The percentage of positive test results among prisoners is much higher than the general population. According to a Tuesday report by the Florida Department of Health, 465,691 people statewide have been tested for COVID-19. Eight percent of the tests – 37,439 – were positive for COVID-19, the report said.
The number of infected prisoners includes seven inmates who died of complications related to COVID-19, corrections officials said. The deaths include six inmates from Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a Northwest Florida prison operated by The Geo Group Inc. The facility where the seventh inmate who died was housed has not been disclosed by the state.
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