Union: More protection needed after COVID death of Fla. corrections officer

An email alleges there have been multiple cases of COVID at the Okaloosa County Jail and that the county hasn't been following CDC guidelines


By Tom McLaughlin
The Destin Log

CRESTVIEW, Fla. — An official representing the union trying to organize Okaloosa County employees is airing grievances on behalf of jail workers who say there isn't enough being done to protect them from COVID-19.

Kelly Benjamin with the AFSCME in Florida, wrote in an email he was "voicing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 inside the county jail."

"We're hearing from inmates and guards and a number of people who work in the jail," Benjamin told the Northwest Florida Daily News.

The concerns are being made public following the Jan. 1 death of corrections officer Jason Goen, Benjamin said.

The email alleges that there have been multiple cases of COVID-19 at the jail and that the county has not been following CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of those inside the facility.

Jail Director Eric Esmond confirmed Goen had died of COVID-19, though he said it had not been confirmed that he had contracted the virus while at work. He also confirmed COVID-19 cases had been reported inside the jail, with about 14 inmates being treated as of the weekend.

Esmond flatly denied that the jail had stopped following CDC protocols to prevent the virus from entering the jail or spreading once inside.

"That's not true at all," he said.

Esmond said inmates and staff are quarantined if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive. Inmates who test positive are placed in isolation, he said.

Benjamin said jail staff have told him that quarantine consists of confining inmates to their cells, but that the barred cells themselves open onto pods inhabited by 40 people or more. His email also states not enough is being done to isolate inmates who have tested positive.

A corrections officer confirmed the method of quarantine.

Benjamin's email also claims that jail employees had confirmed 10% of the corrections staff have been infected with COVID-19 or ordered to quarantine.

One of the correctional officers' most pressing concerns, the email said, is the jail's continuing overcrowding issues. Benjamin said jail staff had expressed to him that early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the state briefly shut down, local law enforcement officials were holding off on making some arrests to keep the jail population down.

But the population, which Esmond confirmed had dropped substantially in early 2020, has ballooned again to about 700 inmates, or about 100 more than the jail was designed to hold.

"Corrections officers are outraged over the loss of one of their own and the continued disregard for their health and safety on the job," Benjamin's email said. "They are demanding strict protocols to stop the spread of the virus inside the jail and to ensure both staff and inmates are protected."

Benjamin is the spokesman for the Florida Chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The group is working with about 400 Okaloosa County employees, about 300 blue collar workers and foremen and a100 corrections officers, who have notified County Administrator John Hofstad of their intention to unionize.

The blue collar workers and foremen will vote on whether to pursue unionization this month, Benjamin said. A vote by correctional officers has not been scheduled.

County spokesman Christopher Saul did not immediately respond to an emailed question about the status of employee unionization efforts.

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(c)2021 The Destin Log (Destin, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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