South Bay Correctional Institution is among five private prisons in the state operated by Boca Raton-based The GEO Group, Inc., one of the largest private prison companies in U.S.

An inmate at a South Florida private prison said his dorm is under quarantine after a fellow inmate began exhibiting flu-like symptoms Friday.


Michael Edwards, a current inmate at South Bay Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County, told The News-Press and Naples Daily News an inmate in a separate section of his dorm was isolated and tested for the novel coronavirus while the rest of the dorm was placed under quarantine.


"So as of Friday, no one has exited the dorm and anyone entering the dorm is wearing a mask and latex gloves," Edwards wrote in response to questions from The News-Press and Daily News on Monday. "The prison administration is spraying down all surfaces with disinfectants, and they are testing for symptoms (for) everyone entering the facility."


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South Bay Correctional Institution is among five private prisons in the state operated by Boca Raton-based The GEO Group, Inc., one of the largest private prison companies in U.S.


Unlike state-run facilities, which are operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, the contracts of private prisons, like South Bay Correctional, are managed by the state Department of Management Services.


Rob Klepper, deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections, had said no inmates had tested positive in state-run facilities as of Monday morning. Tuesday morning, FDC reported an employee at the Marion Correctional Institution Work Camp had tested positive for COVID-19. FDC testing data does not include private prisons, such as South Bay.


Warden William Hamilton deferred all official statements to GEO Group's corporate headquarters in Boca Raton. A GEO Group spokesperson wrote in an email to The News-Press and Daily News that there haven't been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at South Bay or any of its Florida facilities.


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The spokesperson did not answer why a dorm was under quarantine or questions about the testing of inmates and staff members.


On March 13, GEO Group issued a general statement about the company's response to the global pandemic, indicating there were no positive tests for COVID-19 at any of its facilities and the steps its facilities were taking as a precaution.


Included in those steps were:


Updating policies and procedures to include the best practices for the prevention, assessment and management of COVID-19


Ordering swab kits for COVID-19 from a national supplier


Advising employees to remain home if they exhibit flu-like symptoms


Enacting quarantine and testing policies for any employees who may have come into contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19


Deploying specialized sanitation teams to sterilize high-contact areas of our facilities


The lack of positive tests was short-lived as a staff member tested positive later that day at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, forcing the quarantine of staff and inmates, according to reporting from the Delaware County Daily Times.


The Delaware County Daily Times later reported three inmates and five employees tested positive for COVID-19.


Edwards, whose case is set to be heard before the Clemency Board on April 8, said he's never seen anything like this during his time in prison. The Fort Myers man was initially sentenced to 60 years in prison after being convicted in 1994 for selling about one tablespoon of cocaine to an ex-girlfriend.


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"It's very eerie!" Edwards wrote. "When we, I mean us inmates in dorm E4, approach an officer that enters E4, they yell for us to stay 6 feet away, and we do.


"The officers don't even realize that we are much better protected from the virus than they are. We are isolated and in no contact from possible sources like they are."


Before restrictions were put in place, Edwards' normal day would include rising at 5 a.m. to wash up, pray and get ready for 6:30 a.m. breakfast. After a head count was conducted and he was cleared for movement in the compound, he would head to the library to research case law on various subjects.


Now, corrections officers hand out food trays and are doing the chores previously assigned to inmate orderlies, he said.


He added that inmates have grown concerned about contracting the disease from staff.


"Everyone in (dorm) E4 has been checked for symptoms and are clear, so we feel safe as long as these officers and others from the outside stay away from us," Edwards wrote. "These officers and others are in contact with who knows what or whom, and we don't want them near us for now. We know we're clean. We don't know they are!"


Update on state prisons


Klepper declined to provide information about how many tests had been administered to inmates and corrections staff but said the department is working to release that data when it provides an update in a few days.


The department has already implemented a number of protocols and procedures in response to COVID-19.


Last week, it stopped the admission of new inmates and suspended visitation rights, though inmates were provided some complimentary services, such as video visitation and phone calls, through Securus and JPay.


Correctional institutions are also screening anyone entering their facilities and barring entry if the person:


Has traveled internationally or on a cruise within the last 14 days.


Has signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.


Has had contact with someone who has been or is under investigation for COVID-19.


"Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all medically necessary medical and behavioral treatment is one of FDC’s core constitutional responsibilities," a corrections department statement reads. "FDC assures an appropriate level of health care is provided to all inmates and FDC’s medical provider is held accountable for care in line with evolving national standards."


Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or devan.patel@naplesnews.com


This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.