Conditions for workers and prisoners are ‘terrifying,’ says nurse at Tampa Bay prison

The registered nurse says he cares for 27-35 prisoners per shift at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution.

click to enlarge Conditions for workers and prisoners are ‘terrifying,’ says nurse at Tampa Bay prison

Registered nurse Gregory Krolikowski dreads going into work.

When he drives up to the barbed wire gates outside of Zephyrhills Correctional Institution he wonders, “What could happen next?”

A part of him hopes that things will change; that he’ll walk into his nursing unit and he’ll get the news that COVID-19 vaccines are on the way or that he will have access to proper sanitary supplies and hot running water will flow from the broken faucet in the treatment room.

But on every shift it’s the same thing: unsanitary conditions and health risks for himself, the inmates and everyone who works there. At least 150 prisoners have contracted COVID-19 out of 625 total. When he spoke to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, one of Krolikowski’s co-workers recently caught the virus and is quarantining.

Krolikowski is 64-years-old, which places him in a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. His 65th birthday doesn’t come until August, so he doesn’t fall into Florida’s 1A phase of vaccine distribution, the first of three Phase 1 sub-phases. Priority groups in Florida’s rollout of these phases are largely determined by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Within the hospital system, nurses are considered 1A and are being vaccinated, but Krolikowski’s employer won’t confirm when or if the vaccines will arrive. He was told in a work email exchange that he is potentially in the 1B category, and may have to wait a while. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that frontline essential workers be prioritized within the 1B group for vaccine distribution. This suggestion has gone unheeded by DeSantis, who is prioritizing the early vaccination of Florida’s 4.5 million seniors aged 65 and older. 

In the meantime, Krolikowski, who is months shy of meeting eligibility based on age, risks his health every day that he goes to work.

The lack of response to his needs is nothing new to him. Going without basic safety supplies such as N95 respiratory masks and finding roaches on his scrubs has become all too familiar. Before COVID-19, it was typical for him to care for an average of 40 prisoners per-shift in his unit, by himself. Due to precautions implemented to stop further spread of the virus, that number is now between 27-35 per shift, but he’s still overwhelmed. While working in a regular hospital in the past, the most patients he had at one time was nine. On average, he treated four or five patients at a time. In an email, the Federal Department of Corrections (FDOC) told CL that, “The number of patients seen daily varies based on several contributing factors.”

Krolikowski says he hasn’t received a raise in the four-and-a-half years that he’s worked at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution and neither have any of his co-workers. There is no recognition of Nurses Week, which runs the second week of May, and holidays are rarely acknowledged or celebrated. He lives in fear at work and is full of anxiety during his waking hours. 

‘Horrifying’ prison conditions

In his 15 years of working as a registered nurse, Krolikowski told CL that he’s never experienced anything as horrifying as the conditions at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, which has a prisoner capacity of 758, according to the FDOC website. He’s voiced his concerns many times, he says, but no action has been taken to remedy any of the problems. 

On top of all of this, he says he has witnessed excessive use of force while at work, and reached out to the Federal Department of Corrections in August of last year to address it. He was informed that the complaint was sent to the Chief of Investigations, but nothing came of it.

He’s fed up, and feels he has no other choice but to speak out.

“When I believe in something, I fight,” he says.

Krolikowski says many of his co-workers are also disturbed by the conditions at the prison, but they don’t want to say anything for fear of reprimand. 

Although Florida statutes prohibit employers from retaliating against workers for whistleblowing, instances of retaliation—which can include anything from job termination, to reduced employee benefits and demotion—can and do occur. Former Florida Department of Health data manager Rebekah Jones, for instance, filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in December, alleging that officers’ search and seizure of her home was a form of retaliation. Jones, who helped curate the state’s COVID-19 dashboard early last year, was forced out of the state health department in May after publicly criticizing what she alleged as efforts by the DeSantis administration to downplay the prevalence of the virus in the state.

Last Sunday, Jones turned herself in to the Leon County Detention Facility, after learning there was a warrant out for her arrest. Jones was charged with one count of “offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices,” according to the FLDE. Jones posted bail and was released the next day. Wearing a mask, Jones told reporters outside the jail that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

With reprimand for whistleblowing being an unlawful, yet reasonable concern, Krolikowski thinks that he and his coworkers at the prison can’t be alone in their struggle on whether to speak out. 

click to enlarge Stock photo of a prison cell. - Adobe
Stock photo of a prison cell.

Lawsuits against Centurion and Centene

Krolikowski works inside the Zephyrhills Correctional Institute, but he’s directly employed through Centurion, a national provider of healthcare services to correctional systems and other government agencies.

Centurion is a joint venture of Centene and MHM Services. The company spans 15 states in 300 locations with 9,000 plus employees. According to its website, Centurion employs over 7,400 workers across the state of Florida as of Dec. of 2019, with bases in Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando, Pensacola, Sunrise, and Tallahassee. It’s unclear from the website how many of these employees work in Florida prisons. Centurion’s press room and a regional director did not respond to CL’s inquiry about the company.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) reports that MHM Services has been involved in a number of health and human rights violations. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against MHM in Alabama in 2014, accusing it of failure to provide adequate care, medicating prisoners against their will, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, and cruel and unusual punishment. 

Women prisoners in Alabama filed a class action suit in 2002 against the company for “inadequate medical and mental health care.” They won in 2007. Former employees still claim that a continuing “culture of abuse” and systemic problems with care still exist.

There are an array of other audits and accusations against MHM, from improper staffing to much worse. In Utah, Vermont, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Florida, “Deaths have occurred as the result of starvation, denial of necessary medication, neglect, and improper use of restraints,” writes the AFSC.

Centene, the other half of Centurion, is currently the defendant in a $1.125 billion dollar Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit out of California. The CEO and lawyers stand accused of defaulting on claims in an attempt to recover $390 million in liabilities that were improperly disclosed, to the damage of Sovereign Health, which provides mental health and addiction services. 

In the suit, Sovereign Health says that Centurion,“engaged in practices that are in violation of RICO; Conspiracy to Violate RICO; Intentional Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage, Violation of Unfair Competition Law; and Slander." They are suing for $625 million in damages, plus interest accrued, and $500 million in punitive damages.

When Krolikowski found out about the history behind these companies, he felt disgusted. But at the same time, he’s not surprised, because of his own experiences at work. 

The Florida Department of Corrections, which oversees the third-largest prison system in the nation, currently has four open investigations into inmate deaths at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. One of the open cases is identified as a “suicide,” and has been open since March of 2020. Since 2015, the Pasco prison has been the site of 34 inmate mortality investigations by the FDOC. Of those that have since been closed, all were concluded as “natural” with the exception of John McMaster-Wade, a formerly incarcerated man who reportedly died of suicide in June of 2017.

COVID-19 in prisons

According to joint reporting by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press, more than 343,000 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported among prisoners in the United States—a number that translates to about one in five state and federal prisoners. The number of new infections reached its peak in mid-December. Florida is ranked no. 5 nationwide in total COVID-19 infections among prisoners with 17,614 total cases. Behind federal prisons, Florida is ranked no. 1 in total coronavirus deaths, with a death rate of 21.7 deaths per 10,000 prisoners. 

The Marshall Project reports that many staff at prisons are not systematically tested. Prisons nationwide have publicly reported 146 deaths among prison staff, and over 90,000 positive cases. Data for positive cases, however, is derived only from the voluntary disclosure of staff who report their diagnosis to their employers. According to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times, five corrections officers employed with the Florida Department of Corrections have died from the coronavirus over the course of the pandemic. 

Although there’s broad agreement among many public health experts and scientists that incarcerated populations should be high on the priority list for receiving a COVID vaccine, the federal government has left the decision of vaccinating incarcerated individuals up to state and federal agencies.

According to the Prison Policy Project, eight states specifically include incarcerated populations in their  Phase 1 (or Phase 1 subdivision) vaccination phases, and 15 states specifically mention corrections staff. Florida is on neither of these lists.

Even seniors over the age of 65 who are incarcerated are yet to be deemed eligible for vaccination by the DeSantis administration, according to Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who submitted a request with state health officials to secure eligibility for state prisoners earlier this month. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo told the Herald/Times that there are 4,169 people who are incarcerated  in Florida prisons who meet the age group criteria and could therefore be eligible for a vaccine, should Inch’s request be approved. 

Vaccine rollout for healthcare workers leaves those in prisons with questions

On Dec. 23, DeSantis issued an executive order that identified healthcare personnel as a priority population for the initial batch of COVID-19 vaccines, along with long-term care facility residents and staff, and elderly persons aged 65 and older. These groups comprised the 1A priority group for the vaccine, as recommended by the CDC.

First to reach these priority groups was the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer. In early December, Florida was allocated 179,400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine for frontline healthcare workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. From this first round, 97,500 doses were to be distributed to hospitals statewide to vaccinate healthcare personnel. 

A week later, the state received 127,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine to be distributed to county health departments and hospitals that had not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine. Both vaccines require two doses to be fully effective.

Florida has received more than 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines since distribution began, according to the CDC, yet has administered only half.

Florida’s process of distributing vaccines for medical personnel outside of hospital systems has left workers like Krolikowski with questions on how to access those that have been allocated for healthcare workers like himself.

Updates from the Governor’s office detail plans for distributing vaccines within the hospital system. But healthcare workers who work outside of hospitals have struggled to figure out how to gain access to doses promised to medical personnel on the frontlines.

Krolikowski isn’t alone in his struggle. Ann Scott, a home health aide in Orlando, spoke to WKMG News 6 last month about her own difficulties getting access to a vaccine. According to Scott, the Orange County and state health departments told her she had to work for a hospital system, be a first responder, or be 65 or older to receive a vaccine before the Phase 1 rollout. 

The Florida Department of Corrections and The Florida Department of Health told CL that they encourage healthcare workers in prison to contact their county health department or local hospital to find out how to receive the vaccine. Krolikowski contacted Brandon Regional Hospital, who informed him that only HCA Holdings employees, the company that owns Brandon Regional, can receive the vaccine there. He contacted the Hillsborough County Department of Health, who told him that Centurion should have contacted the health department, but has not.

Data acquired by the Orlando Sentinel in late December shows that Zephyrhills Correctional Institution had a 24% positivity rate among its capacity of approximately 600 inmates who had been newly tested. Dozens of corrections staff have also reportedly tested positive for the virus at the prison.

Krolikowski told CL that he’s felt sick lately. The constant anxiety and stress have exacerbated a chronic health condition he suffers from. He hopes he can stay at his job until his 65th birthday because he believes in what he does and the incarcerated people he cares for, not to mention that he needs the healthcare coverage his job provides. But his mental and physical health are constantly at risk, and he’s torn about his future. 

“It’s unbelievable, the total disregard for safety in a place which is a hotspot for COVID,” he says. “This situation has me in pretty bad shape and I’m scared. I have to speak up to protect myself.”

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About The Authors

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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