Fla. COs claim prisons were not prepared for COVID-19
COs said a lack of preparation, like temperature checks, testing and proper PPE, left them unnecessarily exposed
By Grace Toohey
ORLANDO, Fla. — Even before the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Florida in early March, Sgt. Michael Riccio, an Army veteran with a decade of service as a Florida Department of Corrections officer, said he was concerned the virus could hit the state’s prisons — hard — if the largest state agency did not prepare.
He said he sought reassurance in early March from his superiors at the Central Florida Reception Center east of Orlando, but got none — despite cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, rising across the state.
Riccio said he no longer felt comfortable working at the prison while also caring for his 77-year-old mother, who had been in and out of the hospital recently. So, days before the first inmate case was confirmed April 5 inside one of the state’s more than 140 corrections facilities, Riccio left the career he loved.
“They didn’t have enough safety equipment in the beginning,” Riccio said in an interview with the Sentinel. “They didn’t have a plan in place prior to it getting here. … They were super reactive, instead of proactive.”
Coronavirus cases across the state’s massive prison system have since ballooned, with 373 inmates and 167 corrections staff testing positive across 33 prisons , according to the agency’s Sunday report. The death toll has also continued to creep up: Two more inmates died after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, bringing the total to seven. FDC incarcerates about 94,000 inmates and has about 24,000 full-time staff. No positive cases have been reported at the facility where Riccio worked.
As COVID-19 cases climb, corrections officers across the state have complained that a lack of planning and preparation — like early temperature checks, aggressive testing or personal protective equipment, including masks — left them unnecessarily exposed, as well as their families and the inmates at their facilities.
Several corrections officers told the Orlando Sentinel that they were not allowed to wear face masks in early April. FDC has since distributed inmate-made cloth masks to all officers and inmates and required they be worn, a process that was completed last week.
“Did anyone really sit down and think it wasn’t going to hit us in Florida?” said Jimmy Baiardi, who represents corrections officers in the Florida Police Benevolent Association. He said he tried and failed to get FDC officials in early March to share their coronavirus plans and ramp up preparations.
“I told them, ‘Let’s get in front of this thing before it gets out of control,’" Baiardi said. “I don’t know who to blame yet.”
But FDC Secretary Mark Inch said last week he thinks his agency was adequately prepared, and has been “exceptionally successful” at containing the virus in prisons and adapting to changing health guidelines as quickly as possible.
“We’re fighting it very, very well," Inch said last week in a public policy talk with the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based government think tank. He touted that there are only inmates with confirmed cases at a handful of the department’s 50 major facilities. As of Wednesday, when the video conference was published online, there were seven facilities with inmate cases, through three had more than 45 cases.
By Sunday night, there were inmate cases at two more and a fourth with over 45 cases.
“Prior to the first known COVID case here in Florida, we were in the flu season,” Inch said, explaining in the video chat that FDC was already practicing its pandemic plan because of the flu. He did not say if the plan was adjusted for COVID-19, which has been shown to be more contagious and deadly than the common flu.
‘No, we can’t wear that’
Inch said FDC acted earlier than most state corrections departments closing off prisons to visitors and volunteers in early March, and quickly started screening staff for risk factors, like recent travel or personal exposure to coronavirus, isolating over 2,500 staff deemed to carry such risks.
However, the agency only recently provided all inmates and staff with cloth masks, which were made by inmates and distributed to all facilities by Wednesday.
Some officers say the response came too late, especially the masks. The Sentinel has requested the FDC plans for coronavirus, but has not been provided them.
FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady repeated Inch’s statements about an “existing pandemic plan” and said the agency has dedicated staff members “trained in the prevention and containment of infectious diseases,” however, she did not respond to questions about whether that plan was modified to respond to COVID-19.
Glady also did not directly respond to questions about whether officers were prohibited from wearing masks or face coverings before mid-April, but said that “[p]rior to the CDC changing guidelines, officers were allowed to wear face coverings with documentation from their health care provider.”
Glady said FDC is “closely aligned” with the CDC’s Interim Guidance on COVID-19 in correctional facilities and coordinates with the state health department.
“They could have been better prepared,” said Riccio, who is now running for Florida House District 28 in Seminole County, with issues at the Department of Corrections one of his main platforms. "They should have had boxes and boxes of masks, gowns, gloves.”
Before the state agency in mid-April started making masks out of cloth from inmate uniforms, many officers attempted or asked to wear their own masks at work but were told by supervisors they could not wear them, according to interviews with Riccio as well as four other correctional officers, who work at four different state facilities.
The four other officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they could face disciplinary action from FDC for speaking with media.
It wasn’t until April 11, when 44 corrections staff had already tested positive for COVID-19, that the agency officially allowed officers to wear their own masks to work.
“We were originally told, ‘No, we can’t wear that,’" said an officer who works at Sumter Correctional Institution, which has 92 confirmed inmate coronavirus cases, the second-most among the state’s prison facilities. He said he has a child with medical issues and wanted to do all he could to protect his family.
“I’m directly exposed coming in here," he said. He called it a “slap in the face” that his supervisors tried to limit officers from wearing masks.
At Hardee Correctional Institution, southwest of Tampa, one officer said she asked if she could wear an N95 mask into work but was told it wasn’t allowed.
“You worry about yourself, because that’s human nature, but yeah I was thinking about other people, too," the Hardee officer said, explaining that a month ago there were still a lot of questions about how coronavirus spread and its incubation period. "Really no one knew much about it.”
A few weeks later, after the cloth masks were made, the officers were told wearing one was required.
“At that point, everybody’s like, you’re 2-3 weeks late," the officer at Sumter said. “This should have been done a month ago."
‘How would you feel?’
Baiardi, with the corrections union, said he heard from many officers who were told they couldn’t wear masks or were concerned they hadn’t been provided them until late April. But he said the concerns continued even after the masks were supplied, with many worrying the cloth masks aren’t protective, and wondering if the cloth was clean or previously worn by an inmate.
“They were one of the last to get personal safety equipment," Baiardi said, pointing to how other agencies, like sheriff’s offices and local jails, issued N95 or surgical masks much earlier. "The correctional officers are every much as important as ... other law enforcement officers.”
He said he’s heard from FDC officers who have had to transport inmates to hospitals wearing their cloth masks.
“You see everybody there with a medical mask on and you have this homemade mask — psychologically how does that play out?” Baiardi said. "How would you feel?”
But Inch said he is proud of the cloth masks they were able to provide, especially because they were able to sew and distribute them in about two weeks.
He cited the latest guidelines from the CDC for detention facilities, which say face masks are recommended for all staff and inmates, though N95 respirator masks are recommended for staff working in “direct contact" with confirmed or suspected cases, all subject to availability.
Glady said that N95 masks are available for use by staff treating inmates, though it was not clear what staff that would include.
Many officers are unhappy with the delayed response.
“If you let us wear masks early on when this all started, you might not have the issues [there are now]," another correctional officer at Hardee CI said. "We’re keeping the community safe, but you can’t keep us safe.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)