For­mer in­mates give sup­plies to prison

Non­profit stocks state women’s fa­cil­ity with largest virus out­break

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Grace Toohey

The Florida women’s prison that has seen the most pos­i­tive coron­avirus tests among in­mates of any state fa­cil­ity is get­ting donations of much-needed sup­plies, like toi­let pa­per and face masks, from a group of for­mer pris­on­ers.

Last month, non­profit Change Comes Now do­nated al­most 3,000 rolls of toi­let pa­per, about 1,500 bars of an­tibac­te­rial soap, more than 2,000 dis­pos­able med­i­cal masks and 10,000 gloves, as well as clean­ing sup­plies, to Homestead Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion in hard-hit Mi­ami-Dade County, ac­cord­ing to De­bra Ben­nett, the non­profit’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

The group had been hear­ing for weeks that the prison was strug­gling to keep up with the needs of the women and staff dur­ing the pan­demic, Ben­nett said.

“We couldn’t sit back and wait for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to take care of them,” said Ben­nett, who served time at Homestead CI. “They don’t have what’s needed.”

Al­most 300 in­mate tests at Homestead CI have come back pos­i­tive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coron­avirus, the most of any state prison as of Thurs­day, ac­cord­ing to the Florida Depart­ment of Correction­s.

Yet Homestead is one of the state’s smaller main in­sti­tu­tions,

hous­ing fewer than 700 women. Only two other state pris­ons — Lib­erty Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion west of Tal­la­has­see and Hamil­ton Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion north of Gainesvill­e, both of which in­car­cer­ate more than 1,000 peo­ple — have re­ported more than 200 pos­i­tive in­mate COVID-19 tests.

Thirty staff at Homestead have also tested pos­i­tive.

As of this week, 15 in­mates have died after test­ing pos­i­tive for COVID-19 across all state pris­ons, but none have oc­curred at Homestead CI, ac­cord­ing to FDC.

The Or­lando Sen­tinel sent ques­tions to the Florida Depart­ment of Correction­s on May 28, but the agency did not re­spond un­til after this story was pub­lished on­line. Late Fri­day, FDC sent a re­sponse dis­put­ing how many sup­plies the non­profit do­nated.

Kayla McLaugh­lin, a spokes­woman for FDC, said the non­profit do­nated about half as many toi­let pa­per rolls and soap as the non­profit re­ported in its records, which Ben­nett shared with the Sen­tinel. She also said FDC “rou­tinely ac­cepts donations from the public.”

McLaugh­lin did not re­spond to ques­tions about the state of the COVID-19 out­break and re­sponse at Homestead or ac­cess to PPE and other sup­plies at the fa­cil­ity.

Keith Har­ris, the di­rec­tor of the Florida Jus­tice League, is work­ing on some cases of women in­car­cer­ated at Homestead. While he was glad the women and staff got some needed sup­plies from Ben­nett’s group, he is con­cerned what that means for the state of the prison.

“Why would the peo­ple have to do­nate this?” Har­ris said. “Why isn’t the state agency run­ning properly, what else is miss­ing? There’s no telling.”

‘Our com­mu­nity in­side’

While Ben­nett said Homestead’s com­par­a­tively high num­bers may re­flect that many other pris­ons still have not ex­panded test­ing of in­mates, she said it is still con­cern­ing that, ac­cord­ing to in­mates, lit­tle has been done to ad­dress the out­break and the is­sues that come with hous­ing a sick and quar­an­tined pop­u­la­tion.

In a May 11 press re­lease about the out­break at Homestead, when only 73 in­mate tests had come back pos­i­tive, FDC of­fi­cials said “re­sponse teams have been ac­ti­vated to ad­dress emerg­ing needs.”

At that time, FDC of­fi­cials said more than 42,500 face or sur­gi­cal masks, 20,000 N-95 or equiv­a­lent res­pi­ra­tors, 4,000 gowns or cov­er­alls, 1,000 pairs of pro­tec­tive eye­wear, 1,000 boxes of gloves and a sup­ply of shoe covers were avail­able for staff at Homestead CI. The agency, they said, was “closely mon­i­tor­ing their us­age and en­sur­ing Homestead has a con­sis­tent in­ven­tory of PPE avail­able.”

The day after that press re­lease, Ben­nett said her non­profit made their first do­na­tion trip to Homestead, tak­ing toi­let pa­per and an­tibac­te­rial soap for the women and bot­tles of hand san­i­tizer and clean­ing al­co­hol for staff.

Over the next three weeks, Ben­nett said her team brought more toi­let pa­per and soap for the women, as well as puzzle books to help them pass the time and enough masks for each women to get two new ones. She said they found a way to bring a new TV when staff asked, be­cause the in­fir­mary’s only TV stopped work­ing.

For staff, they brought 75 gal­lons of bleach, thou­sands of gloves, more masks, as well as PPE face shields and booties, she said.

“It’s crazy that they’re al­low­ing us to help,” Ben­nett said, em­pha­siz­ing how grate­ful she has been of the Homestead lo­cal lead­er­ship, es­pe­cially given how hard it is typ­i­cally to make donations to state pris­ons. “They are al­low­ing us on the out­side to help them on the in­side —that’s our com­mu­nity in­side.”

‘Their plan is an epic fail’

Of the tests that have been done at Homestead CI, al­most 40% have come back pos­i­tive. The Depart­ment of Correction­s is only re­leas­ing the num­ber of tests com­pleted, in­clud­ing re­peat tests, not the num­ber of cases, so it’s un­clear ex­actly how many women have tested pos­i­tive at Homestead or what per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion has tested pos­i­tive.

Ben­nett said she con­tin­ues to hear from women there who are fight­ing COVID-19 symp­toms, mostly via emails through the JPay sys­tem, but also letters.

“I have fever and cough­ing too, very weak,” one JPay mes­sage said.

An­other crit­i­cized how FDC of­fi­cials keep mov­ing women be­tween dorms.

“This plan is NOT work­ing and they need to reeval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion,” the woman wrote to Ben­nett late last week. “More moves and guess what? More and more sick with ev­ery move! … I know that DOC was not ready for this but damnit, their plan is an epic fail.”

The Or­lando Sen­tinel re­quested in April the FDC’s plans for its coron­avirus re­sponse, but no records have been pro­vided. The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter re­cently sued FDC for not re­leas­ing these public records.

FDC Sec­re­tary Mark Inch has said the agency has a pan­demic plan, which is used for the flu ev­ery year, but it was not clear if that was up­dated or tai­lored to re­spond to COVID-19.

Food prompts con­cerns

While the coron­avirus and its spread is the main con­cern at Homestead, Ben­nett said iso­lat­ing in­mates due to the out­break has caused other is­sues for the women there.

Ben­nett said women at Homestead no longer have reg­u­lar ac­cess to the can­teen, the prison’s on-site con­ve­nience store, which means many women now have no ac­cess to ad­di­tional hy­giene prod­ucts or sup­ple­men­tal food.

She said it’s typ­i­cal for peo­ple in prison with ac­cess to money to pur­chase their own soap and toi­let pa­per at can­teen, since the ho­tel-sized soap bar FDC gives out and one roll a week does not last long.

Many also buy soups and snacks to re­place meals.

But now, those op­tions are se­verely lim­ited, an is­sue ex­ac­er­bated be­cause all meals are now de­liv­ered to dorms and most are cold, in a brown bag. Lately, the women have mostly been fed peanut but­ter or bologna on bread, ac­cord­ing to mes­sages women at Homestead have sent to Ben­nett, which the Sen­tinel re­viewed.

Ben­nett said her non­profit has asked if they could bring donations of gra­nola bars and sports drinks for the women, but that has not been ap­proved.

“Some peo­ple can’t even eat peanut but­ter or bologna,” one woman wrote last week. “I hate see­ing most of these women go to bed hun­gry.”

“When this is all over I never want to see bologna ever again!” an­other wrote.

McLaughin, the FDC spokes­woman, said in­mates con­tinue to have ac­cess to can­teen for both food and hy­giene prod­ucts, but did not ex­plain how, given that most are in quar­an­tine. She said pris­on­ers can re­quest more soap or toi­let pa­per at any time if they need it.

She did not dis­pute the re­ports of in­mates sub­sist­ing on bread with bologna or peanut but­ter, but said

FDC fol­lows a di­etary ref­er­ence es­tab­lished by the Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Science for menus “to en­sure proper nutri­tion and caloric in­take for in­mates.”

Jim McNulty, whose wife tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19 at Homestead in early May, said she con­tin­ues to call him plead­ing for help. He said she can’t stom­ach the bologna. He wor­ries how she and the other women in­fected can re­cover from the coron­avirus with­out a sus­tain­ing or re­li­able diet.

“I don’t see how this can go on, for not only my wife, but a lot of these women,” McNulty said.

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