Skip navigation

Major Outbreak of Legionnaires’ at Coleman Women’s Work Camp

The women’s work camp at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, Florida, reported 18 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease in early February of this year.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said it was working with the Department of Health (DOH) to identify the source of the infection, manage current cases and take necessary precautions.

The Miami Herald said officials at the prison would not answer questions about the outbreak, but prisoners and their families said the facility had a lot of people complaining about flu-like symptoms. “Apparently a large number of women have tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease,” wrote Paul Forkner’s daughter, who is incarcerated at Coleman. She said that many prisoners were not even being treated or were being diagnosed with a common cold.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection said Legionnaires’ disease is a lung infection acquired from breathing water vapor contaminated with Legionella bacteria. It can cause flu-like symptoms such as coughing, aching muscles and headaches. It is the leading cause of waterborne-disease outbreaks in the United States and can be fatal if not treated.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said the bacterium grow rapidly in warm, stagnant conditions and can commonly be found in engineered water systems such as cooling towers or building plumbing. Toxicologist Dr. David Krause stated, “The [DOH] should be able to look at the epidemiological data and tell if it’s associated with a single water heater source or whether it’s a cooling tower outside the building that’s affecting the whole prison.”

Forkner’s daughter said the entire institution is in disrepair. She stated that much of the ceiling tiles were gone, exposing the building’s pipe system. Warm, stagnant water conditions existed everywhere in the prison. She was concerned that a large number of prisoners had been diagnosed with the infection, but no one in authority would answer any questions.

She also accused the BOP of lying to families of prisoners, telling them that the prisoners were receiving bottled water when they were not; if they wanted clean water, they had to purchase it from the canteen. For the time being the facility was not receiving any new arrivals, but routing them to other prisons in the state.

In a statement released February 4, the BOP said it had installed two recirculating pumps and point-of-use filters for the shower heads and sink faucets. But the BOP had yet to isolate the source. Krause said the BOP does not likely have the expertise to investigate the outbreak without turning to a consulting firm for assistance. More importantly, it seemingly does not have the will or the interest of safeguarding the prisoners in its care and the employees on its staff.