Inmates diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease at Fla. prison

Officials wouldn't release how many inmates at FCI Coleman were diagnosed with the pneumonia-like virus

Carli Teproff
Miami Herald

WILDWOOD, Fla. — The women’s work camp at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, already beset by allegations of pervasive sexual abuse by guards on inmates, has another problem — inmates contracting Legionnaires’ disease.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Coleman confirmed, after several days of ignoring inquiries, that “some inmates at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Coleman’s minimum security satellite camp were diagnosed with legionella pneumonia.”

Legionnaires disease’, the more common name, is a type of pneumonia (or lung infection) caused by breathing in water that contains legionella bacteria. The disease can cause flu-like symptoms, including coughing, aching muscles and headaches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“FCI Coleman is working closely with officials from the Florida Department of Health to investigate the source of this matter and take necessary precautionary measures,” the Coleman spokesman said in a statement, adding that there are currently 409 inmates housed in the camp. “In conducting this investigation, the health and safety of staff, inmates, and the public are the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) highest priority.”

The work camp is part of a much larger complex housing thousands of inmates, mostly men.

While Coleman won’t address specific questions, including how many inmates, corrections officers or civilians have contracted the disease, inmates and family members of inmates describe a dire situation.

Paul Forkner, whose daughter is incarcerated at the work camp, said she first told him about an outbreak on Jan. 23.

“Apparently a large number of women here have tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease,” she wrote her father. “Today they had people here testing water, looking at mold on showers and supposedly Monday they are looking at air conditioning vents. I wish you could see this place. Everything is exposed. Pipes, vents, all of it. In the showers there are huge pieces of ceiling missing where all you see is the crap pipes.”

The next day she told her dad that five women had been taken to the hospital. She added that 90 people had been diagnosed. She said no one from the camp’s medical staff had addressed the inmates. Her most recent email, which was Tuesday, called the situation a “never-ending unfolding drama.”

“Peoples families are calling up here and they are telling them we are being provided water [WE ARE NOT],” she wrote.

One inmate said in an email to the Miami Herald that the inmates received a letter from the warden Tuesday saying there was a Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“We asked for face masks to wear in the shower, because it is spread by inhaling water droplets,” she wrote. “So far none have been given.”

Another inmate described women being taken to the hospital almost every day. She said new inmates weren’t allowed in.

“I heard that a bus was coming to bring new inmates from Tallahassee, FL FCI, but was turned around,” she wrote. “And a self-surrender inmate came to turn themselves in and was sent to Miami Detention Facility.”

The Department of Health in Sumter County said there is “an active investigation going on there” but would not say why, citing the active investigation itself. The department referred inquiries to the BOP.

David Krause, who has a Ph.D in toxicology and was the former state toxicologist at Florida Department of Health from 2008-2011, said an outbreak at a prison is unusual. Most commonly, Legionnaires’ is contracted by people with weakened immune systems, who smoke or have other problems, including kidney disease. He said hospitals and nursing homes are more likely to have outbreaks.

He said if there are indeed dozens of people who have contracted the disease, it would be considered one of the largest outbreaks seen in the state.

“This is not contagious,” he said. “This is something that is within the building’s water system.”

According to a report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicines, “Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacterium, is the leading cause of reported waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States.”

“Legionella occur naturally in water from many different environmental sources, but grow rapidly in the warm, stagnant conditions that can be found in engineered water systems, such as cooling towers, building plumbing, and hot tubs,” the report said. “Humans are primarily exposed to Legionella through inhalation of contaminated aerosols into the respiratory system.”

If not treated, Legionnaires’ disease can be fatal, according to the report.

Krause said getting rid of the bacteria completely is a challenge, but flushing the systems with chlorine could help.

The BOP did not say what it is doing to protect inmates.

“The BOP uses a comprehensive approach to managing infectious diseases in federal prisons that includes testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures,” the spokesman said in the statement. “Staff and inmates have been notified about this situation and FCI Coleman staff are prepared to take any additional steps as needed.”

He said those who have the disease are being treated with antibiotics.

Legionnaires Disease got its name from the first-known outbreak: at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976 that coincided with the Bicentennial. In total, 149 Legionnaires were stricken and 33 other persons associated with the convention hotel or in the area also became sick. Of the total of 182 cases, 29 people died.

The Coleman outbreak comes nearly two months after women at the prison banded together and filed a lawsuit claiming male corrections officers sexually harassed and assaulted them with no consequences. Following a Miami Herald story about the lawsuit, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio demanded that the Bureau of Prisons conduct a thorough review. Rubio has still not received an update.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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