Inside a sweltering prison in rural North Florida, the mass testing of hundreds of inmates began nearly two weeks ago on a Saturday, as corrections workers tried to sort and quarantine prisoners with symptoms of COVID-19.
At the time, many inmates came into close contact with each other at Columbia Correctional Institution. A few days later, the results rolled in: More than 400 prisoners had tested positive, the largest number of infections at any correctional facility in the state.
“They mixed positives with negatives. They mixed positives with people that did not have test results back. But you know, they had no other choice. They had nowhere else to put us,” William Jennings, an inmate at the prison who tested negative last week, told The News Service of Florida in an interview on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I am positive now,” Jennings added, pointing to a mild fever and body aches as recent symptoms.
As of Wednesday, 5,361 state inmates and corrections workers had tested positive for COVID-19, a deadly respiratory disease that has shown itself to be efficient at moving rapidly through prisons and jails. Also, 34 prisoners have died since April.
The surge of cases in Florida’s prison system has come as the state has morphed into a global hotspot for the virus. As more inmates and workers test positive, prisoners and criminal-justice reform advocates are pleading with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to do more to address the problem.
“The people are the loved ones of your constituents who are relying on you to protect them. They want leadership and are looking to you to provide it. I am begging for your help,” Denise Rock, executive director of the nonprofit inmate-advocacy group Florida Cares, wrote in a letter to the governor on Tuesday.