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Federal prison in Central Florida banned masks for staff as pandemic began, report says

Orlando Sentinel - 1/13/2021

A federal prison in Central Florida initially banned staff from wearing face masks for about a month after the coronavirus pandemic began surging in Florida, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General.

The Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Coleman in Sumter County has been under scrutiny since a COVID-19 outbreak that had caused the deaths of five inmates and one staff member as of Jan. 3. A total of 833 inmates and 175 prison employees tested positive for the virus, federal officials said in their report.

“Coleman’s infection rate for staff, as of [Jan. 3], was approximately 1 in 8,” the report said. “[The] inmate infection rate was approximately 1 in 6.”

The federal Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The prohibition on mask-wearing was one of “several challenges” that OIG officials found in Coleman’s response to the pandemic, based on a BOP-wide employee survey and 128 hotline complaints from inmates, the report said.

Prison employees at Coleman told federal officials they were threatened with discipline if they wore personally acquired masks or were sent home on sick leave for wearing facial coverings. One complainant reported that a supervisor had said wearing a mask would “scare the inmates,” the OIG report said.

In response to the report, BOP deputy director Gene Beasley wrote in a memo that Coleman issued surgical masks to its staff April 7, a day after BOP said it would issue face coverings to all staff and inmates.

“Staff safety is the top priority for FCC Coleman and the agency as a whole,” Beasley said.

The report noted Coleman finally allowed staff to wear personally acquired masks as of April 26, but only those that were of a single color and “not offensive.”

“We concluded that this prohibition caused confusion among staff regarding what was and was not authorized as to the wearing of personally acquired face masks and led to staff concerns that their safety was not a priority for management,” federal officials wrote in the report.

OIG officials also found Coleman was operating with only 80% of its medical staff at the onset of the pandemic, when it needed adequate staffing to control transmission rates. Although the prison’s management said inmates had access to soap, the report said staff and inmates described the supply as insufficient.

Inmates also complained that social distancing was “impossible” at two of the complex’s five facilities because of their open, dormitory-style layout. When an inmate tested positive for COVID-19 at one such facility, nearly 1,000 other inmates were quarantined for two weeks.

“Several of these inmates expressed anxiety that they would die from COVID-19 because of the inability to socially distance,” federal officials said.

Beasley said in the report that Coleman has hired more medical staff since officials first inspected it in May and placed more distance between inmates in dormitories. He argued the prison has “consistently provided hand soap and alcohol-free hand sanitizer to staff and inmates throughout the pandemic.”

“FCC Coleman took all efforts to follow the BOP Quarantine Guidance in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 amongst the staff and inmate population,” he wrote.


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