Orlando Sentinel

As reports cease, virus deaths persist in prisons

- By Grace Toohey

At least two men recently died of COVID-19 while serving prison sentences in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel confirmed through medical examiners, though the state department of correction­s has stopped reporting such deaths, or even cases, publicly.

The deaths raise further concern about the ongoing — and unknown — threat of COVID-19 in state correction­al facilities, for both the incarcerat­ed and staff. Since early June, when the Florida Department of Correction­s halted emergency pandemic protocols, including all reports on COVID-19 cases, testing and deaths, it’s been unclear the extent of the virus inside state prisons without accurate or up-todate data. Advocates and families continue to hear frequent reports of COVID19 symptoms and a lack of testing inside many prisons.

Randall Parrish, 54, died last week of the virus, and George Strayhorn, 75, died Aug. 31 of COVID-19 pneumonia, according to the

District Six and 10 Medical Examiner Offices, adding two more COVID deaths to the 221 FDC reported before June. Parrish had been incarcerat­ed at Zephryhill­s Correction­al Institutio­n, and Strayhorn at Polk Correction­al Institutio­n, both outside of Tampa. Strayhorn’s death was first reported by the Lakeland Ledger.

It was not immediatel­y clear if Parrish or Strayhorn had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccines were made available to people in prison in April.

FDC officials did not respond to questions this week from the Sentinel about an updated count of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerat­ed people, or if the agency is reconsider­ing its plan to no longer update a COVID-19 dashboard. FDC officials also did not provide current positive case numbers among the more than 80,000 people in Florida prisons.

“It’s tough to sit with the fact that some of these most basic, foundation­al

concerns aren’t really being answered,” said Forrest Behne, the policy director for the COVID Prison Project, which tracks the virus at correction­al facilities nationwide. “We would love to be able to advise on practices that are informed by that data, but that’s not possible.”

While Behne said Florida is not the only state that has stopped or limited its COVID-19 reports about prisons in recent weeks or months, he said getting basic data, like death counts, can be really helpful to monitor risk and track other issues.

“Mortality is something that’s very final and it’s pretty unambiguou­s,” Behne said. “And in terms of a health metric, it’s really important for us to have.”

While FDC reports all in-custody deaths, it does not publish someone’s cause of death, so there could be more people who have died of COVID-19 since June. The Sentinel is still waiting on additional records requests from medical examiner’s offices.

FDC also halted reporting staff COVID-19 deaths as of June, when at least nine correction­s employees had died of the virus — but those deaths have also continued, with the extend still unclear.

And as the pandemic drags on, Florida’s prisons are facing unpreceden­ted staffing issues that have closed many correction­s facilities, with agency officials recently announcing plans to transfer thousands of incarcerat­ed people to different facilities to better utilize available officers. Experts warned early in the pandemic that transfers could further spread the virus, especially in crowded facilities with little space for distancing.

 ?? RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SENTINEL ?? Though the department of correction­s has stopped reporting coronaviru­s-linked deaths, at least two prisoners recently died of COVID-19.
RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SENTINEL Though the department of correction­s has stopped reporting coronaviru­s-linked deaths, at least two prisoners recently died of COVID-19.

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