Just days after the first correctional officer in Florida prisons died of COVID-19, a second officer died of the highly infectious disease, which has infected 9,180 prisoners and 1,810 officials across the state prison system. Fifty-four prisoners have died.
Joseph “Joe” Foster, remembered by family and friends as a devoted husband, father and proud American Army veteran. He was hired by the State Department of Corrections in December 2009.
“We called him ‘the executive’ because he always took care of everyone,”
Surles said Foster, who had a wife of 15 years, two sons and a daughter, was a “family guy” who had a “heart of gold.” His latest Facebook post was about reopening the school and how he feared the state would put children at risk if they sent them back for personal instruction.
Foster lived in Gainesville, where he grew up. He graduated from Gainesville High School in 1994, according to his Facebook page.
His most recent assignment was at the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, where one prisoner has died of COVID-19 and 472 are infected. Twenty-seven officers in the prison are ill with the disease.
The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The department confirmed Monday night that Robert “Wayne” Rogers, 65, was the first officer to die of COVID-19. Rogers, an employee of Graceville Work Camp, a subsidiary of the Jackson Correctional Institution, died an hour after his wife, who also had COVID-19. Neither his nor Foster’s deaths are reflected in the Ministry of Health’s prison report, which is updated once a week.
Not even top brass has been spared exposure to the virus, which the prison system has failed to contain. Department Secretary Mark Inch and Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon both tested positive for COVID-19 last Thursday after visiting the Columbia Correctional Institution and attending a conference at the Florida Sheriffs Association on July 27.
Protection for correctional officers has become a focus of the Police Benevolent Association, which says officers have not been given proper personal protective equipment or adequate access to tests. So many officers have become ill from the disease that the FDC is launching crisis plans in two prisons with significant staff shortages, which requires workers at Dade and Jefferson penitentiaries to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week.
Surles says the loss of his friend has drawn people to Facebook to share memories of his friend, who they say died far too young. Friends called him “Big Joe” or “Coach” and looked at him as someone who agreed with everyone he met, even though he had a “kind of scary” demeanor.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Surles said. “He was a loving, kind guy.”