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COVID-19 races through Miami’s federal prison

FCI Miami Satellite Camp

JULY 17, 2020 

BY Carli Teproff AND DeVoun Cetoute - Miami Herald

Miami’s Federal Correctional Institution went from prison to a petri dish in the span of a couple of weeks.

Roughly a week ago, FCI had a handful of confirmed infections — not good but better than many prison compounds. Thursday, according to the Bureau of Prisons website, the number had leaped to 93, a colony of vomiting, headachy coughing captives.

Kareen Troitino, the FCI Miami corrections officer union president, said COVID-19 has become a serious problem at the facility since July 1.

He blamed lack of protective equipment, close quarters and people going in and out.

He said inmates are broadly complaining of “odd headaches, body aches and fatigue.”

One of the main challenges is that the Bureau of Prisons defines PPE as surgical masks and nothing more, Troitino said.

“I get a lot of complaints from a lot of employees that they ran out of gloves and N95 masks,” he said.

Troitino described a recent incident where workers were not told by the administration that some of the inmates had tested positive in what they call the glass house, an area with 60 inmates in bunk beds.

Out of 60 inmates, 55 have tested positive, he said.

There are currently eight staff members at FCI with the virus, according to the bureau.

Contacted by the Miami Herald, the bureau would not go into detail about individual facilities and instead provided a link to general guidelines prisons are supposed to follow. The website does provide the current COVID count at each facility.

One inmate at the low-security prison told the Herald he keeps seeing more men pulled from general population. They have been given masks and encouraged to wear them but are not required to so, said the inmate, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal. Some men are being forced to squeeze three people into one cell, he said.

“It’s really bad in here,” he said. “They are running out of room.”

A similar picture is painted of Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, west of Orlando, where some inmates say they are putting women prisoners in the facility’s visitor room because they are running out of isolation space and visitation has been curbed.

“I am so angry,” said Christian Huarte, whose mother is serving a 25-year term for medical-related fraud. “They knew this was coming and they are not doing anything about it.”

Huarte fought tears as he spoke about his mom. He did not want her named for fear of retribution by staff.

“She’s positive for COVID,” Huarte said. “She and 29 other women were taken to the quarantine unit today.”

FCI Coleman Low

The Bureau of Prisons reports that 45 inmates and 11 staffers in Coleman’s low-security section are infected. The number nearly doubled in a day. That number is a dramatic undercount, Huarte insisted.

This isn’t the first time the conditions at Coleman have drawn scrutiny. Earlier this year, the facility —which was already under fire for allegations of sexual assault — had an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease.

In total, 3,483 out of 129,430 inmates across BOP-managed institutions are currently infected, data show. But 5,370 other inmates who had COVID have recovered. In addition there are 295 staff members currently infected and 631 who have recovered.

Ninety-five federal inmates have died of COVID-19 — none in Miami or Coleman — and one staff death has been reported.

“The Bureau of Prisons is carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the bureau said in an email. “As with any type of emergency situation, we carefully assess how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public.”

The vague guidelines published by the bureau include: Eliminate visits, suspend inmate movement with limited exceptions, prohibit staff travel, screen contractors, require staff and inmate screening and modify operations “to maximize social distancing in our facilities.”

“We began inventorying sanitation, cleaning, and medical supplies and procuring additional supplies of these items,” BOP said. “All of these actions were carried out with the goal of reducing the risk of introducing and spreading the virus inside our facilities.”

The guidelines don’t indicate whether an inmate who feels he or she might have COVID can get a test.

Evelyn Zayas, whose sister is at Coleman, said on July 6 the camp was placed on lockdown and her sister was put in an isolation room with six others.

“My sibling was presenting with many symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, headache and a metal taste in her mouth and her blood pressure was high,” she said in an email. “She had a green discharge from her nose and for this she was only given Tylenol.”

Zayas, who did not want to name her sister, said it took several days for her sister to get antibiotics.

“They continue to move in more women who tested positive for COVID-19 together with ones that are still waiting to get their results,” she said, adding that her sister has been tested three times, but hadn’t received the results.

“The conditions are deplorable and nothing is safe or sanitary,” she said.

Zayas said her sister was just moved to the visitors room to sleep on a cot and shower in a trailer with at least 30 other women who tested positive.

“The inmates in the visitors room do not have access to phones or computers to at least be able to speak to their families, Zayas said.

Family members also are questioning why inmates — especially at the work camp at Coleman — are not being released to home confinement, which is allowed for certain circumstances under rules put in place by Attorney General William Barr.

“Given the surge in positive cases at select sites and in response to the Attorney General’s directives, the BOP began immediately reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors, as described by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], to determine which inmates are suitable for home confinement,” the bureau said.

Not withstanding that, inmates and their relatives say few have been released.

“It’s like the warden doesn’t want to let anyone out,” Huarte said.

South Florida defense attorney Richard Klugh said the only healthy solution is to “cut the prison’s population in half — just like we have done with our restaurants — by releasing as many non-violent inmates as possible, including all with hypertension, respiratory problems, shortness of breath, asthma, congestive heart conditions, diabetes, immuno-suppression and other relevant acute or chronic concerns.”

“There needs to be a very substantial release of prisoners to the point where prisons are undercrowded,” he said.

But critics of inmate releases have said they are one reason for a recent spike in crime in some large cities, including New York City.

Klugh said the process for release to home confinement starts with the warden and “can take a lot of time.” District courts are getting cases, he said, but they are often kicked back until it has gone through the warden.

BOP said “case management staff are urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria established by the Attorney General.”

To date, 6,945 federal inmates have been placed on home confinement since the pandemic began.

Knowing who does and doesn’t have novel coronavirus in the federal prison system is almost impossible as testing isn’t being done and safety guidelines aren’t being followed, said Joe Rojas, southeast vice president of the Council of Prisons, which represents corrections officers.

“It’s like walking in a big area full of landmines, because you don’t know who is positive unless you test,” Rojas said. “Working in a federal prison, or any prison, is like being in a petri dish. It’s gonna explode and when it explodes, what can you do?”

He says the administration has implemented safety procedures, like guards and staff wearing masks, that aren’t being followed.

After talking with Coleman prison’s warden, Rojas said two officers were working while positive for the virus. He wants to see more testing done and guidelines being followed in order to stave off the virus.

If another wave or spike of infections hits the prisons or a new virus season rolls around, Rojas sees the prison system being hit even harder. To the point of staff shortages and complete prison lockdowns.

“We are the new Wuhan, especially in Miami. It’s bad,” Rojas said. “I’m afraid for our staff.”

FCI Miami (LOW)