With four inmate deaths due to coronavirus and more than confirmed 50 cases, Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County has been the epicenter of the outbreak in the Florida prison system. The privately-operated prison is now second to Tomoka Correctional Institution, which 54 COVID-19 cases.
But, state prison officials, including the Florida Deparment of Management Services, which monitors has oversight of private prison system, have been slow to respond to questions. As a result, many have sent inquiries to state Rep. Jayer Williamson, whose District 3 includes the prison.
“I’ve actually had emails from families who have family members who are inmates, people who don’t live in the district, but their family members are in Blackwater,” said Williamson.
“They knew that I was the representative of the district, so they reached out with concerns.”
Their many concerns and questions have covered a wide range of topics.
Williamson explained that he’s not served on any committees dealing with prisons, so he really had to deep dive into corrections policies and procedures, in order to properly respond.
“I was not just going to blow them off, for one; and two, I wasn’t just going to make up an answer,” he declared.
Most sought after has been information about the coronavirus deaths of four inmates from Blackwater River Correctional Facility; to date those are the only COVID-19-related deaths in the entire state prison system.
The first death occurred April 9, but it took nearly a week for the state to report it. This delay is one reason media and public frustration is building over access to vital information.
“Some of them were upset because they said the state officials or - the private prison really is more so what they were picking on - the private prison is withholding information,” said Rep. Williamson, pointing to news reports about how the prison was hiding information. “I can say that’s a completely false narrative from everything I’m able to gather.”
In speaking to state agencies about how prison deaths are handled, the second-term legislator says he’s learned about what’s known as the Inmate Mortality process that has to be followed by the Department of Corrections.
“That’s family notification and other items. Then the cause of death has to be determined by the medical examiner and then the medical examiner has its own protocols in place they have to follow,” he explained.
COVID-19 deaths or any medically related death, he adds, requires FDC to comply with confidentiality clauses through HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
Because of the different processes and protocols, Williams notes that it typically takes a few days for news of a prison death to be released to the public.
That anonymous data, as well as the number of positive cases at each facility, is also posted on the Department of Corrections COVID-19 webpage.
The local medical examiner has the responsibility of determining cause of death and releasing names of the deceased.
Williamson believes media reports based on the concerns of inmate families has highlighted the void between their early notification and the eventual release of information to the public.
“I think that’s what we saw really with Blackwater prison,” he said. “The family was notified through that inmate mortality process and the family reached out to people to let it be known (to the media). But, the state, the prison, would still have to follow the certain processes they have to go through, and so would the medical examiner, especially HIPAA, to make sure everything is followed properly before they release the names.”
In the case of Blackwater River Correctional Facility, Jeffrey Martin, director of the District One Medical Examiner’s Office in Pensacola released the names of the (four) prisoners who’ve died as a result of coronavirus.
They’ve been identified as 65-year-old Rafael Rosario who died last Wednesday, April 15, and 66-year old Jessie Bannerman, who died a day later. Both were hospital inpatients.
Eighty-four-year-old William Wilson also died as a hospital inpatient on Easter Sunday. Jeffrey Sand, who was 69, died at the facility on April 9.
Those four inmates deaths are included in Santa Rosa’s overall count, which stood at 6, as of Tuesday afternoon.
To date, state corrections officials have made no public comments and the private operator of the local facility, The Geo Group - based in Boca Raton, has been slow to respond to media requests.
Williamson was asked whether it might be time for prison officials to speak up, to clarify for the public what’s going on and why.
“I think that will come in due time,” he answered. “Not to make light or put you off, but there’s so many other things that the governor’s office and different state agencies are dealing with on all levels of this COVID-19...trying to catch their breath on things.”
As a state lawmaker, Rep. Williamson has been able to access information. Upon review, he believes the coronavirus pandemic is being taken seriously by Blackwater River Correctional facility, which on Tuesday had 52 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 42 inmates, with two tests pending.
“The inmates are being regularly checked for fevers and symptoms. If they show signs of sickness, then they’re put into medical isolation and they’re tested for COVID-19,” Williamson explained. “If they come back negative on that, then they’ll continue the treatment for whatever it was they were put into medical isolation for, then they’re released back into their cell group. If they test positive, then obviously, they have to stay in isolation and receive treatment and the cell block would be quarantined.”
Information on prison quarantines, which is a new addition to FDC’s COVID-19 report, show the Santa Rosa facility began the week with 629 prisoners in medical quarantine; the number dropped to 566 on Tuesday. Two inmates were in medical isolation.
Williamson says he’s satisfied with his findings.
“From everything I’ve been able to gather at this moment, I feel they’re (Blackwater River Correctional Facility) doing their job properly. They’re making sure that guidelines and standards and protocols that are in place are all being followed. They’re trying to make sure that prisoners and prison guards are as safe as possible.”
Although he’s satisfied for now, Williamson said he plans to stay on top of the issue to ensure things are done right moving forward.