Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Florida Guards and Prisoners Fear COVID-19 Infection

by David M. Reutter

Much has been made of essential employees as the economy shut down in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus has been on the bravery of health-care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. One group that has gone ignored are guards and other employees that help run jails or prisons.

Like a nursing home, a jail or prison crams a lot of people into a small, confined spaces. “The social distancing is next to impossible when you’re on top of each other,” said Kevin Gay, who runs the nonprofit Operation New Hope in Florida, which helps prisoners reacclimate to society upon release. “You’ve got a formula for disaster.”

By design, jails and prisons are isolated from society. That means the only way for COVID-19 to enter lock-ups is for it to be brought in by a someone from the outside. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) acted in mid-March 2020 to prevent its entry by suspending visits and volunteers from entering its prisons and by halting transfers or reception of prisoners from jails. Yet it failed to take other steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As of June 12, 2020, the FDOC website reported 1,608 prisoners who were positive for the virus; 50 were in medical isolation; 3,679 were in medical quarantine and 956 were in security quarantine; there were 237 staff who tested positive. In addition, FDOT reported 18 COVID-19 related prisoner deaths.

Staff who tested positive were sent home to self-quarantine for at least 14 days. Testing of all guards and employees, however, was not mandatory as the pandemic raged.

“We are randomly sampling staff and in,dates from different pods based on the number of specimen containers available,” said Debbie Stilphen, spokeswoman for Florida’s Santa Rosa County Health Department, about testing at that Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. “The reason we are doing the sampling is to find out who might need to be tested in the process of our investigation.”

Prison staff were encouraged to self-report. FDOC posted a sign outside its prisons that listed COVID-19 symptoms. It advised staff to not enter the prison if they had any of those symptoms. Yet guards could be a COVID-19 carrier and never know it.

“All it takes is one or two officers coming in that asymptomatic and it’s like fire,” said Gay.

The World Health Organization reports as many as 40 percent of positive COVID-19 cases transmitting the virus are asymptomatic.

With an aging prison population and many prisoners already suffering from poor health or preexisting medical conditions, being in a prison or jail during a pandemic is a scary proposition for prisoners and guards. Guards, after all, have to return home to their families each day, creating a risk of infecting them. For prisoners, there was a constant fear of being infected because social distancing impossible in an open bay dorm and difficult even in dorms with two-man cells.”

“Everybody is on edge,” said Florida prisoner David Denney. “We don’t want to get sick because this is not the place to get sick.” 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login