For at least 210 Florida inmates, a prison sentence turned into a death sentence due to COVID-19.
The second-highest death toll in the country for prison inmates continues to tick up. The death rate is 1.5 times the rate in Florida overall.
Currently, Florida inmates are not eligible for a vaccine.
“I know what it’s like to try to get medical care under normal conditions, so to further exasperate that under COVID conditions, it’s a nightmare,” said Susan Melendy, whose son is in prison.
Speaking to the more than 200 Florida prison inmate deaths related to COVID-19, she said, “It’s upsetting. It’s just completely irresponsible and people have to be held accountable for things like that.”
Nineteen states have prioritized vaccinations to prisoners and staff, unable to social distance. So far, Florida has rejected the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation.
A least six prison staff have died related to COVID-19, according to data the Florida Department of Corrections reports to the state’s department of health on a weekly basis.
As of March 15, nearly 18,000 of Florida’s 90,000-plus inmates have tested positive in Florida prisons, along with more than 5,000 staff over the past year.
‘I was scared about my family’
Greg Krolikowski, a registered nurse at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern he’s been asking his employer about a vaccination plan for months.
“This is quite frustrating and appalling,” Krolikowski said, showing emails he sent to higher-ups at Centurion, the state’s contracted medical provider that employs Krolikowski.
“It is scary to go behind (the) gate with the notion that we are not protected,” Krolikowski said. “I was scared about my family, my wife.”
In December, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed 150 inmates out of 625 tested positive for COVID-19, at the prison where he works. A least three died.
“‘Inmate’ to me is a patient,” Krolikowski said. “We need to give them a chance to re-enter society alive. Not to give them a death sentence by not providing medical care.”
Zephyrhills C.I. is one of the state’s prisons with dorms specifically designed for elderly inmates, considered to be anyone at least 50 years old.
Following failed attempts through county health departments to get the vaccine, 64-year-old Krolikowski asked Centurion multiple times for a letter to help him get vaccinated.
In a statement, a Centurion spokesperson told the I-Team, “The Florida Department of Health is the lead in determining the vaccine distribution plan. Centurion has not yet been provided vaccines to administer to our staff, however, our staff are eligible as healthcare workers to receive the vaccine through their local County Department of Health distribution sites.”
The spokesperson said the company has now sent all staff a letter, “which reinforces that they are essential healthcare workers doing vital work” and that Centurion is committed to helping staff become vaccinated.
Finally, Krolikowski told the I-Team, he was able to get his first dose with the help of that letter. Still, he worries about the thousands of others behind the gates.
“I’m one of those people who are not afraid to reach out because I see that this is important,” Krolikowski said.
‘I’ve made it to this side'
For many, Florida’s prisons are out of sight, out of mind.
But not for Laurette Philipsen.
“I couldn’t just walk away and forget,” Philipsen said.
Philipsen, who lives in Pasco County, served 8 years and 6 months at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, for grand theft.
March 13 marked three years since her release.
“The plus to all of this is that I’m standing on this side of the fence and not that side of the fence,” Philipsen said, standing outside of the prison. “I’ve made it to this side.”
Philipsen volunteers for the nonprofit Florida Cares, advocating for people who are incarcerated.
“I just couldn’t turn my back on it. I had to speak out and I will continue to speak out until I take my last breath,” Philipsen said.
That includes advocating for every prison inmate and staff to be vaccinated.
“I would like to see everybody in prison inoculated,” she said.
Philipsen sends newsletters to the women inside Lowell with updates on any prison legislation and recent news coverage.
One of the recipients is Mindy Fulton, who happened to be released after serving a 7-year prison sentence for drug trafficking while the I-Team was outside of Lowell with Philipsen.
Philipsen welcomed her home with a tear-filled hug.
Fulton, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, said she worried about her health while incarcerated.
“My hands touch the tires constantly. Sometimes my hands are so dirty, so I’ve constantly got to wash my hands,” Fulton said, mindful of all of the ways COVID-19 can spread.
The department of corrections has reported three COVID-19 related deaths of inmates at Lowell C.I.
“It was scary, very scary,” Fulton said. “They’ve come around and asked people to sign up for the shot, but we haven’t seen anything on it yet.”
The CDC recommends prison inmates and staff be vaccinated at the same time because of the shared increased risk of disease. The CDC website also points out that prison outbreaks are difficult to control because people can’t remain physically distant and there’s limited space for quarantine or isolation. It also pointed out many people in prison are older and have underlying conditions placing them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infections. And it warned that outbreaks in correctional facilities could lead to community transmission.
‘They’re vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors’
In a statement, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said the department “is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available” to anyone who wants it.
The agency provided no specifics on who would get first priority when the vaccines do become available, pointing to the state’s department of health.
The Florida Department of Health has yet to answer the I-Team’s questions about a plan for vaccine distribution in prisons.
The governor’s office directed the I-Team back to the Department of Corrections.
“It may take a class action suit to get the incarcerated people, incarcerated citizens, to get the vaccine. That’s what they did in New York and they’ve gotten it,” Philipsen said.
Last month, public defenders and advocates sued New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, claiming denying vaccines to inmates violates their constitutional rights.
The next day, the state began vaccinating inmates over age 65.
New York is among 19 states currently vaccinating prison inmates and staff.
In a February news conference, Governor Ron DeSantis blasted the move, saying, “They’re vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors.”
DeSantis stood firm on Florida’s approach.
“We’re looking out for parents and grandparents here in Florida. There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen,” he said.
‘It’s leaving correctional officers out’
The governor has since opened up vaccine availability to include sworn law enforcement officers over the age of 50. The keyword — “sworn.”
“It’s leaving correctional officers out,” Jim Baiardi, who oversees the Police Benevolent Association’s correctional chapter, said. “I was stunned.”
Baiardi said the pandemic’s impact is far greater than the numbers available, with the department of corrections putting out statements that three correctional officers have been reported by families to have died after testing positive for COVID-19.
The number of family members testing positive and community spread from people coming in and out of the prisons is unknown.
“Through the whole crisis, the correctional officers stood by and performed their job. Long hours and hard working conditions with probably not the protective equipment that some other people in high-risk fields had, and their reward for it is, they’re kind of left off the list of people that will be vaccinated,” Baiardi said.
Baiardi said that in November he began asking the corrections department for their plan for when vaccines become available.
“We haven’t heard from the department,’ Baiardi said. “I think there should have been a plan in place for this, with such a critical, big agency like the Florida Department of Corrections.”
‘They’re coming home every day’
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa said she wants all inmates 65 and older and staff to be vaccinated, calling it “criminal” that the state is not ensuring that staff is protected.
When asked why people should care if inmates are vaccinated, when there are still so many waiting on their turn for a vaccine outside of prison walls, Hart responded, “They’re coming home every day. Being released. So what if they come home to your neighborhood? And they’re positive. And we’ve done nothing about it.”
Hart shared that her older brother died in prison.
“He died alone with AIDS,” Hart said. She can relate to what the family members of those who died from COVID-19 have been through.
“I see their loved ones dying,” Hart said when she sees the number of deaths at more than 200. “And sometimes they don’t even know."
Full statement from the Florida Department of Corrections:
“The Florida Department of Corrections is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available to our agency. We will ensure community-level care is given to anyone under our care and custody who chooses to be vaccinated.”
FDC’s Office of Health Services along with the contracted medical staff are currently educating the inmate population regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Medical staff is visiting each dormitory to answer questions and provide an overview of the vaccine, including benefits, potential side effects, as well as the process of scheduling and follow-up, if applicable.
Every inmate is encouraged to participate if indicated by vaccine guidance.
The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) is the lead in determining Florida’s vaccine distribution plan. FDC is in communication with FDOH as the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed.
The Florida Department of Health (DOH) has asked front-line health care workers in correctional facilities to contact their local hospital or county health department regarding the availability of the vaccine in their area.
Information on vaccine distribution in Florida can be found at floridahealthcovid19.gov. FDC will receive further direction on distribution from DOH as supplies become available.
All questions regarding Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan should be directed to the Florida DOH.
Full statement from Centurion:
The Florida Department of Health is the lead in determining the vaccine distribution plan. Centurion has not yet been provided vaccines to administer to our staff, however, our staff are eligible as healthcare workers to receive the vaccine through their local County Department of Health distribution sites. As we become aware of new supply locations, we share that information with our staff as well.
Centurion is committed to helping our staff to become vaccinated. We have provided personnel with information through email, our employee intranet, nurse leadership calls, town halls, and clinical operations conference calls on registering for and obtaining their vaccine and provided instruction regarding documentation that they can use to prove eligibility. We have received no reports of staff being turned away using their ID badge and a copy of their licensure. As a supplementary document, Centurion also distributed a letter to all staff which reinforces that they are essential healthcare workers doing vital work within a critical infrastructure industry as defined by the US Department of Homeland Security.
Centurion is proud of the tireless work that our staff has performed every day during the pandemic for the incarcerated population across Florida. We appreciate the challenges that the State and County Departments of Health have in distributing vaccines to ensure Florida residents are vaccinated in accordance with the Department of Health’s vaccine distribution plan and will continue to work in cooperation with our state partners.