Prison Staff Warn of Potential COVID-19 Outbreak in Miami Detention Center

A prison staffer claimed that at least 31 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus just this past Monday.
A prison staffer claimed that at least 31 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus just this past Monday. Photo by Florida Department of Corrections
As coronavirus cases rise toward 2020 levels in Miami-Dade County amid a new surge in infections around the state, employees at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in downtown Miami warn of a possible new COVID-19 outbreak that could pose a threat to inmates, staff, and the public.

In a July 27 email to Warden Eugene Carlton, Eric Speirs, a FDC Miami corrections officer and president of the local 501 Miami chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents prison employees at FDC Miami, stated there was an uptick in coronavirus cases at the facility and complained of inadequate safety measures as COVID-positive inmates from out-of-state are brought in.

FDC Miami houses inmates who've been convicted of federal offenses and acts as a pretrial detention center for those awaiting trial on federal charges. According to the website of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which runs the Miami facility, of the 1,257 men and women housed at FDC, 700 are fully vaccinated. (The BOP website doesn't indicate whether that figure represents inmates who are currently in the facility, or if it includes people who have been transferred out.)

The BOP website reports eight active cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the Miami facility.

In a series of emails to New Times, BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson responded that "the total number of open, positive-test, COVID-19 cases fluctuates up and down as new cases are added and resolved cases are removed."

Speirs refutes the BOP figure, telling New Times that the number is much higher, based on conversations with medical staff and corrections personnel at FDC Miami.

In his July 27 email to the warden, Speirs claimed that at least 31 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus just this past Monday.

According to the BOP's Nelson, when inmates are transferred from one facility to another, they're screened and tested by medical staff for COVID-19 upon arrival and then placed on a 14-day quarantine or in medical isolation. He also said BOP staff conducts contact tracing whenever someone tests positive.

"While in general population, any inmate displaying symptoms for COVID-19 will be tested and placed in medical isolation. A contact investigation is conducted per CDC guidance to identify any potential exposures and may include widespread testing as clinically indicated," Nelson explained. "Quarantine in the context of COVID-19 refers to separating inmates (in an individual room or unit) apart from other incarcerated individuals not in quarantine."

Though that is the policy, Speirs maintains that incoming inmates are not being adequately screened or quarantined. In his email to the warden, he stated that in early July, more than 300 incoming inmates were not quarantined after several dozen of them tested positive for COVID-19. Some of the inmates, he says, arrived from a federal transfer center in Oklahoma City that experienced numerous coronavirus outbreaks last year.

"Just this Monday we had 31 inmates test positive for COVID. We have inmates on three different floors testing positive for COVID, but management hasn’t contacted employees and done contact tracing," Speirs tells New Times.

Speirs says that although the 31 inmates were transferred to the prison's isolation unit, they'd already come in contact with hundreds of inmates who were not quarantined. Further, he says, management is not properly informing those inmates or the guards at the facility.

"They aren't doing contact tracing and not informing employees that they were exposed. I worked with someone who got COVID-19 and management never told me — I found out from him," Speirs says.

Speirs says he knows at least two inmates contracted COVID-19 and were isolated, but other inmates from the same housing unit were not quarantined or tested, and instead made to move around the prison for work details and to clean prison facilities.

But he’s most concerned about the 20 inmates who might have come in contact with the virus but were transferred out of the Miami facility this week without having isolated for 14 days. He worries that may pose a significant transmission risk to other inmates and the general public.

"You’re supposed to quarantine. Why are these inmates being shipped out after there were 30 positive cases? We just put the public in serious jeopardy," Speirs contends.

The BOP's Emery Nelson declined to comment specifically about the inmates transferred from Oklahoma or those who Speirs says were transferred out without having been quarantined.

"For safety, security, and privacy reasons, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not discuss the specific conditions of confinement for any inmate or group of inmates," he said.

In 2016, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General issued a report stating that the entire BOP had a critical problem filling medical positions, and that staffing levels in prisons had reached a "crisis level."

An FDC Miami staffer, who asked that their name not be published for fear of reprisal, tells New Times that little has been done to fix the problem since 2016 and that the pandemic has only made things worse. The employee says FDC Miami has been understaffed for years, putting a serious strain on medical workers, sometimes to the point where they are unable to meet inmates' basic needs.

"Name the position, we’re shorthanded," the employee says. "Nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, doctors. We don't have enough staff to do our regular jobs."

Often, the employee adds, medical staff are expected to work 60-hour weeks in order to keep up with intakes and they still haven't finished processing the transfers who arrived in early July.

"People come to work and bring a bag with a change of clothes and food, because more often than not they get stuck and are mandated to stay at work," the employee says.

"We try to test everybody" who may have been exposed to COVID-19, the employee says. "But we’re getting inundated. We’re good at screening them, but we don't have enough staff, so some people are falling through the cracks."

What's more, the unnamed employee says backed-up plumbing is making conditions worse for inmates and staff.

"The toilets are clogged, and aerosolized fecal matter can carry COVID. They're a vector for infection," the staffer says.

BOP's Emery Nelson asserted that there has been no shortage of medical personnel at the facility.

"FDC Miami has a solid complement of trained medical personnel who provide essential medical, dental, and mental health (psychiatric) services, in a manner consistent with accepted community clinical guidelines for a correctional environment," Nelson said.

The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for transferring federal inmates to detention facilities around the nation, via planes, vans, and buses. Last year, the marshals came under fire for transferring inmates without first testing them for COVID. Whistleblowers blamed inmate transfers for severe outbreaks of the virus within the BOP, tallying thousands of inmate infections and more than 100 inmate deaths last July.

Earlier this year, Eugene Carlton, FDC Miami's warden, loosened some COVID-19 precautions at the facility. In an internal memo dated March 26 that was obtained by New Times, the warden stated that the prison had enjoyed two consecutive weeks without a single positive COVID-19 case and as such would relax its mitigation efforts.

Speirs says cases started spiking this month, and precautions need to be stricter.

"In the isolation unit, we’ve only had two or three people in the past few weeks — now it's close to 40. It wouldn't surprise me if we had 100 inmates with COVID who aren't symptomatic," Speirs says.

In April, Speirs filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), claiming prison management had failed to take adequate measures to protect staff from COVID-19 transmission and allow for social distancing.

An OSHA spokesperson confirmed that an investigation into Speirs' complaint is still ongoing.

"All BOP institutions are currently operating under enhanced modified operations," spokesperson Emery Nelson told New Times via email. "This action was taken as a means to further mitigate exposure and spread of COVID-19 at the facility. Enhanced modified operations are not a lockdown, but rather a means to minimize inmate movement, to minimize congregate gathering, and maximize social distancing among the inmate population."

At the height of the pandemic last year, prisons and jails nationwide were under intense scrutiny as vectors for coronavirus spread, as close-quarters conditions made for easy transmission of the virus. Civil-rights groups sued Miami-Dade County's corrections department for failing to adequately protect inmates from COVID-19. Though a district judge ordered the county to implement additional measures, an appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the corrections department was doing the best it could.

But while Miami's federal correctional facility is facing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, the county is not, according to Steadman Stahl, president of the South Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents Miami-Dade County corrections officers.

Of 4,156 inmates held in Miami-Dade County corrections facilities, only about 21 are COVID-19 positive as of this week, according to Stahl.

"That number at one time was in the hundreds. It's [the current count is] not a large spike, and not an alarming number," Stahl tells New Times.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos