Florida Prisons Grapple With COVID-19 Hitting Workers

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 4:48 pm

TALLAHASSEE --- The number of Florida corrections workers known to be infected with COVID-19 has more than doubled during the past month, prompting state officials to launch emergency plans at two prisons where there are significant staffing shortages.

The emergency plans, a copy of which was read to The News Service of Florida, said workers at Dade Correctional Institution and Jefferson Correctional Institution will need to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week to ensure “adequate staffing levels” are maintained at the prisons.

“Usually, this was done during some of the darkest hours of prisons --- during riots, a natural disaster or a hurricane,” Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said in an interview Monday. “Now, it’s getting to the point where it’s getting so bad that they’re doing this during the pandemic.”

When the plans went into effect Thursday, Dade Correctional Institution had 84 staff members who had tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, the number at the Miami-Dade County prison has ticked up to 97, according to data released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Corrections.

At Jefferson Correctional Institution, a smaller prison in rural North Florida, 22 workers had tested positive for the disease as of Tuesday. The number is up from 17 positive cases on Thursday.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the internal emergency plans at the two prisons are an example of a “precautionary measure” the department will put in place when there are large-scale officer absences at facilities.

Dade and Jefferson appear to be the only prisons with emergency plans in place, but several prisons across the state have seen increasing numbers of staff members get sick in recent weeks. Over the past four weeks, an additional 561 corrections workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

In total, 885 corrections workers --- including probation officers, corrections officers, nurses, food service workers, administrative staff and other personnel --- were known to have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday. The state also reported Tuesday that 2,632 inmates across the state had tested positive. 

Glady said many department employees who have tested positive have recovered from the illness and returned to work but did not provide an exact number. However, she noted that as of Monday, 1,032 department employees were out of work due to the pandemic. 

“These may be individuals who have failed screenings, been in contact with an individual who is suspected positive or has tested positive for COVID-19 or has tested positive themselves,” Glady said.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes expressed concern that staff shortages caused by the pandemic will exacerbate some correctional facilities’ low staffing levels. He said corrections workers were already stressed and working overtime before the pandemic started.

“When there are a few cases spread out over the department, that’s not the end of the world. The end of the world is when 30 of them are in one facility or 40 of them are at one facility,” the St. Petersburg Republican said in an interview.

The department had 2,649 correctional officer vacancies across the state in June, Glady said. The vacancies are in addition to the 1,032 workers who are temporarily off the job because of the pandemic. 

As of Monday, Dade Correctional had the largest number of employees who had tested positive, with 97. The prison had a 14 percent job-vacancy rate in late June, according to Matt Puckett, the executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The South Florida Reception Center, which also is Miami-Dade County, has the second-largest number of employee positive test results, with 86 reported on Tuesday. 

Glady said the department has not “experienced any degradation in security operations as a result of staff absences.”

“FDC (the Department of Corrections) has a plan in place as a precautionary measure if a large-scale office absence were to take place,” she said. “All FDC staff have been provided education guidance on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Brandes said a key to halting the spread of the virus in correctional facilities is mandatory sample testing throughout Florida’s prison system, something he has been calling for since March.

But as of Tuesday, the department is not mandating testing for all staff members. Instead, the department is offering and encouraging employees to volunteer for testing at 13 correctional facilities where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. 

“Staff have participated in voluntary testing efforts, and the vast majority at those institutions have been tested,” said Glady, who did not answer when asked if there were plans to make testing mandatory any time soon.

Glady added the department’s policy is to deny access to employees who fail to pass screening tests, which includes questions about their travels, symptoms or contacts with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. If they fail, and are denied access, workers are required to have documentation from a medical professional that says they can return to work.

Inmates and employees are also required to wear face masks at work, and the department closely monitors and assesses institutions to ensure inmates and staff have adequate protective equipment, Glady said. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis has offered few public comments about the state’s response to COVID-19 cases in prisons, unlike his focus on efforts to contain the disease at other high-risk places such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 

When asked whether DeSantis intended to implement additional measures to address infections among Department of Corrections employees, his office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis, however, approved an across-the-board pay raise for correctional workers and a $54 million retention-pay plan that could help address low staffing levels at some prison facilities during the fiscal year that started July 1.

Under the retention plan, correctional and probation officers will get bonuses ranging from $500 to $2,500, depending on how long they have worked for the Department of Corrections, starting at two years of service.

The pay raises, which will go into effect in October, paired with a high unemployment rate in the state, could help alleviate some of the staffing challenges, Brandes said.

“I think it will help a little bit,” Brandes said. “Strangely, the thing that will help the Department of Corrections will be a high unemployment rate because it means that people without a job will be looking at these jobs as an alternative whereas they wouldn’t have before.” 

Baiardi, however, was skeptical the high unemployment rate will make a big difference.

“You would think the department would be able to hire more people with a high unemployment rate,” he said. “But when people read the paper, and see, oh, that’s the COVID-19 hotspot, who goes and says, ‘Yeah, I am going to go get a job there.’”