Shoddy masks — some made from socks — leave Central Florida jail inmates exposed to COVID-19, attorneys say

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ORLANDO, Fla. — As COVID-19 continues to spread through Central Florida’s jails, sickening hundreds of inmates and corrections staff, the facilities have failed to adequately shield inmates from the virus, critics say.

Attorneys who have visited clients at the Orange, Osceola and Seminole county jails say inmates have been given masks that are poorly made or not designed for prolonged use. At Osceola’s jail, inmates were issued masks made from tube socks.

Attorneys and advocates also say mask-wearing is loosely enforced at those jails by staff, some of whom flout the regulations themselves. Many who have visited these facilities in recent months say inmates also have little to no access to disinfectants.

These lax coronavirus precautions unnecessarily endanger inmates and contribute to why hundreds have tested positive for COVID-19 in the jails over the past few months, advocates say. One attorney said another Central Florida jail, Lake County’s, appeared to have improved its practices after an outbreak claimed the lives of two jail deputies over the summer.

At least 550 inmates and 233 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at Central Florida’s jails. A disabled Army veteran died in late August after contracting the virus while an inmate at the Seminole County Jail. Another inmate in Lake County died of pneumonia during the facility’s outbreak in July, though officials couldn’t say at the time if he had COVID-19.

“These are the forgotten men and women in our state and in our country,” said Debra Bennett, executive director of the nonprofit prison advocacy group Change Comes Now.” … Some of these jails right now, they are death traps, plain and simple.”

The earliest any of the four facilities issued masks to inmates was April, though inmates at Lake County Jail began sewing masks for health-care workers in March. Since then, all four jails have made masks of some kind available to the incarcerated population.

But the quality of these masks varies greatly, attorneys say, and many inmates aren’t being issued clean masks often enough or given the proper materials to wash reusable ones.

Beth Bourdon, an assistant public defender for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, said during a visit in early June, she was alarmed to see her clients at the Osceola County Jail wearing tube socks stretched across their faces.

“It doesn’t really stay up. … It’s sitting right under their nose and covering their mouth, and it’s super thick and they can’t breathe,” Bourdon said.

Osceola County Corrections spokeswoman Hope Hicka confirmed the jail issued cotton masks “fashioned from materials salvaged from unused tube sock material” to inmates in April. Bourdon said the masks were still shaped like socks and difficult for her clients to wear and talk through.

“It’s still got the toe part on it, it’s still got an elastic end to it, it’s just — there’s a little area cut out so that they can slide it over their ears,” she said.

The facility issued new washable masks, made of triple-layered cotton jersey, in July, Hicka said, but inmates may still wear the sock material masks as they were allowed to keep both styles.

The CDC recommends masks should be made of at least two layers of washable and breathable fabric and snugly cover the wearer’s nose and mouth without gaps.

Attorney Susan Malove said her client’s mask “barely covered his mouth and chin and definitely didn’t cover his nose.” She started bringing him a medical mask to wear during their meetings to keep them both safe — but said jail staff at Osceola take the masks she brings afterward because they’re considered contraband.

Attorney Lia Hartwell said her clients at Osceola’s jail told her they do not have regular access to cleaning agents or hand sanitizer, even through the jail’s commissary.

At the Orange County Jail, where a round of testing in late July revealed dozens of asymptomatic inmates had been infected with COVID-19, mask usage is inconsistent and many inmates are reusing tattered masks, according to an assistant public defender who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

The attorney said she met with a client in late July who was wearing an old, dirty surgical mask that appeared to be stained with dried blood. Others’ masks were similarly soiled. Malove echoed that account, saying inmates’ masks were dirty and “stretched out.”

Orange jail spokeswoman Tracy Zampaglione said inmates are provided one surgical mask at a time, which is replaced weekly or as needed.

Hartwell said she’s seen inmates wearing makeshift masks made out of available materials, like spare T-shirts, at jails in Orange and Seminole when mask supplies are scarce. Seminole’s jail reported a large outbreak of coronavirus infections in August.

“It was more common than not to see crudely constructed face coverings (at Seminole), if they had them at all,” she said.

Inmates at the jails in Seminole and Lake were issued two washable cloth masks each, jail spokespeople said. At Seminole, a few inmates told the Orlando Sentinel they were only issued one mask, without an adequate way to wash it.

Attorneys have said inmate mask compliance, though face coverings are required in public areas at most facilities, is spotty, and noted having seen many staff members at the Orange, Seminole and Osceola jails who weren’t properly using masks — some carrying them around or wearing them under their chins.

“If we’re trying to protect incoming (inmates) … it needs to start at square one, which is all personnel need to abide by the jail’s own rules,” Hartwell said.

At Orange, Lake and Osceola’s jails, staff are required to wear masks while working. Seminole “strongly encourage(s)” inmates and staff to wear masks, spokesman Bob Kealing said.

At the Lake County Jail, staff have been consistent about wearing face coverings throughout the pandemic, but they have become stricter about enforcing inmate mask compliance after an outbreak earlier this summer killed two jail deputies, attorney Jaimie Washo Spivey said.

After the initial outbreak, the jail limited contact between inmates and attorneys in July, and a corrections officer in a “hazmat suit” would transport legal documents in and out of the jail for attorneys, she said.

“They’re doing a good job,” she said.

Unlike state prisons, the populations of county jails are always in flux, with new people being arrested and booked each day as others bond out and are released. Coupled with inconsistent COVID-19 testing and quarantining, a jail can become a “revolving door” for coronavirus transmission, Bennett said.

“People are coming in right off the street and going into a holding cell,” she said. “ … (the holding cells are) packed full of people, and they’re not being given masks. It’s not possible to social distance.”

All four Central Florida jails have instituted some form of a 14-day quarantine for new inmates, but not all automatically test people during the booking process.

COVID-19 testing is voluntary for incoming inmates at the Orange, Osceola and Seminole jails, while Lake’s jail only tests new inmates if they have symptoms, according to spokesman Fred Jones.

Washo Spivey said the Lake jail has enough space to safely quarantine inmates and provide interview rooms for visiting attorneys to meet with clients.

“They’re using every inch of the jail to scatter people around so that they don’t infect each other and they can be monitored,” she said.

At the Orange County Jail, Malove said quarantine procedures are being followed sporadically. Inmates aren’t being tested before they exit quarantine, and one of her clients was mistakenly pulled out of quarantine for a court hearing before being placed back into a quarantined cell, she said.

“I’m just not surprised that these outbreaks are happening because they have no idea what they’re doing,” she said.

All four facilities are regularly cleaned and disinfected, jail spokespeople said. They added inmates had access to hand sanitizer and personal disinfectants, but attorneys said they’ve heard from clients that inmates have limited access to hand sanitizer — or even soap, in some cases.

Malove said a client who was transferred to Seminole’s jail from another facility was not able to shower or brush her teeth for a week while she was in post-transfer isolation, because the inmates in the isolation pods outnumbered the available bathroom space.

Malove, president-elect of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said members of the organization have been collecting information about COVID-19 precautions in area jails since the beginning of the pandemic. They’ve tried to bring their concerns about jail COVID-19 protocols to local judges, but the complaints have largely gone ignored, Malove said.

Though attorneys said they understand jails face an unprecedented challenge in safely housing inmates during a pandemic, they say more consistency, communication and innovation from jail administration and staff is sorely needed.

“You can tell their intentions are in the right place, but they do seem to be struggling,” Hartwell said. “ … Let (inmates) shower, give them extra soap, make sure they have masks. And obviously, it’s up to everyone that enters the facility, whether or not they’re in handcuffs or holding a bar card or holding a badge, to be held accountable to the same standards that they’re asking us all to follow.”

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)