The Florida Department of Corrections is facing a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over its failure to release public records related to its COVID-19 response in a timely manner.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones has reported extensively on the deaths in state prisons. And for the first time, the family of inmate Randy Cotton is speaking about his death from COVID-19 on May 8.
“It hurts. When we saw him like that, I tried to hold it together. They had him handcuffed to the bed,” Terry Cotton told us during an interview.
The 61-year-old never woke up from a coma after he was taken to a hospital from Sumter Correctional Institution on April 24. According to a medical examiner’s report, he suffered shortness of breath and respiratory distress when he was taken to Bayfront Health in Brooksville. His family told 9 Investigates they didn’t know he was in the hospital until days before his death when they got an emergency call from the Florida Department of Corrections staff.
“We don’t know how long he had been in the induced coma. We couldn’t talk to him, we couldn’t touch him,“ Cotton said
Henry Camacho and Stephen Maxwell also died at Sumter Correctional Institution from coronavirus complications. So far, seven others have also died at Blackwater prison in the Panhandle.
Early in the pandemic, the Department of Corrections refused to release details related to its COVID-19 cases for inmates and staff. It wasn’t until after intense media pressure that the information related to cases was released.
Even now, the department will not release information on the exact number of inmates or staff who have been tested at its facilities — only the number of positive and negative tests, which could include repeat tests.
In addition, the department has resisted calls for mass testing at all institutions. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit demanding records its yet to receive related to the DOC response to the pandemic.
9 Investigates has also requested some of the records.
“In some states, the prison is the transmission point for a whole community and we don't, thankfully, have evidence of that in Florida, but we have so many people in prison. It is a matter of grave concern and something the governor should take action on,” said Shalini Agarwal, with Southern Poverty Law Center.
Last Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly acknowledged that there is a problem with outbreaks in the prisons but has announced no plans to reduce the spread.
“When you look at new cases, we've seen prisons some of this other stuff. It's important to note that, but the most important thing I'm looking for is how many of those cases are clinically consequential,” DeSantis said during a news briefing.
It's unclear how many inmates have required hospitalization because DOC cites privacy laws. As of Tuesday, 7,029 inmates are in medical quarantine. The Department of Corrections says the data “refers to the number of inmates who have been separated because they may have had close contact with a person who has tested positive or exhibited symptoms of an infectious illness, to determine whether they develop symptoms. All inmates in medical quarantine are monitored by health services staff and receive temperature checks twice a day for signs of fever.”
Another 1,119 inmates have tested positive, along with 239 staff, meaning there could be more inmates who never make it back home.
“He was excited. That's all he talked about, ‘I’m coming home soon. Y'all be here to pick me up,’” Cotton said. Her brother was expected to be released in January.
The DOC told Channel 9 that they are following CDC guidelines on testing and cleaning.
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