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Union leader: Officers at Coleman prison complex feel 'sacrificial' during pandemic

The Bureau of Prisons reports one inmate and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Coleman federal prison complex in Sumterville. Photo: BOP
The Bureau of Prisons reports one inmate and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Coleman federal prison complex in Sumterville. Photo: BOP

Three staff members and one prisoner have tested positive for COVID-19 at the huge Coleman federal prison complex in Sumter County.

But prison employee and union leader Joe Rojas says you can’t trust those numbers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Rojas says officers there are called essential but they feel sacrificial -- because the government has been slow to provide personal protective equipment.

He was interviewed by telephone Friday afternoon.


WMFE: Joe, I wanted to talk with you a little about the challenges facing the staff at the Coleman prisons with COVID-19. Can you tell me about what the corrections officers and others are feeling there right now?

ROJAS: Right now there's a lot of anxiety and fear concerning this working environment because this virus we don't see, we don't hear, we can't touch, we can't feel it. And it not only affects our working conditions, but we can take it home and possibly have an effect in our family. So it was kind of scary working in these conditions. We don't have a problem working. If ... we just want the proper protection.

WMFE: You were telling me there was some concern with masks?

 ROJAS: We've been asking to bring our own masks because the bureau, for the longest of time, the agency wasn't applying masks to our staff. So staff were bringing in their own masks to protect themselves and to protect their families. And they were told to take it off, that that wasn't allowed, to the point where we have the complex warden walking around and telling people they're not allowed to wear their masks, to take it off.

WMFE: Now there's been a development in that right?

ROJAS: Last week, the agency has provided the surgical masks, only because of the public outcry of a lot of the unionists. We've been going to the media. The local congresswoman, Val Demmings, has written two letters to the director, demanding why we're not allowed to bring our own, why the agency hasn't provided PPE.

WMFE: So you're given a mask for each day?

ROJAS: No, they're only giving us two masks for the entire week, the surgical mask. What happens if I soil my mask through sweat or through sneezing?

WMFE: Do you have the sense that we're getting up-to-date information on cases in federal prisons from the government?

ROJAS: No, absolutely not. Because what happens is ... like in several institutions, they're not even testing the inmates. They're assuming the inmates are already COVID-19 positive so that's why the numbers, when you see in the BOP webpage are low, because that isn't an accurate account of the inmates who are positive but they're not testing inmates. And as far as staff numbers, they're also going to be low because, even if staff tested positive, they need written documentation from the doctors. They're not taking staff word on it. So, even the numbers for staff are not going to be accurate, because they take their time, they were waiting to post the numbers. At FCC Coleman, when we first had a positive COVID-19 staff. It took the agency three weeks to post it on the website. So they're slow-walking it. We actually have four at Coleman. I think on the website it only says three, on the BOP website. 

WMFE: Well, Joe, look I sure appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

ROJAS: I thank you for the opportunity to have our voices heard, because it is a concern for the staff, and I can't say this enough, you know, they try to call us essential but we feel we're sacrificial because they don't provide us with the proper protection.

And when you have a warden walking around telling people to take off their masks, that's why we feel like we feel.


Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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