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 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 noted that as of Monday, 1,032 department employees were out of work due to 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.
“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.
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.
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.
Brandes said. “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.’”