Failed legislation would have helped inmates get out as virus spreads behind bars. Now, deaths have begun

Coronavirus has reached Florida's state and federal prisons. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Reform-minded lawmakers sponsored legislation in 2020 that would have allowed low-risk, elderly and sickly inmates to be released before coronavirus took hold in Florida’s prisons. But it didn’t pass, and the dangerous virus has arrived.

On Sunday, a state prison inmate in Santa Rosa County became the first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection among Florida’s 96,000 inmates. And the number of employees confirmed positive rose to 23.

While Florida operates 144 state prisons, the state also is home to nine federal prisons which hold about 10,000 inmates. So far, there have been no deaths or reported infections in Florida’s federal prisons. But there have been eight deaths in federal prisons in Ohio and Louisiana. 

Inmate advocates say that being locked behind bars during this pandemic of COVID-19 may amount to a death sentence for many inmates.

Advocates for inmates and employees forecast that COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, will exact a heavy toll in both the state and federal prisons located in Florida, where 106,000 inmates combined are incarcerated in close quarters, medical care is minimal, and cleaning supplies are scarce.

Federal inmates may now qualify for release to home confinement, but no such directive has been issued for Florida’s state inmates, though advocates are clamoring for it.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, has tried for years to reform the criminal-justice system that makes Florida one of the toughest in the nation in terms of lengthy sentences, minimum gain time, no parole, no early release for low-risk inmates, and virtually no clemency.

Even before coronavirus upended society, he sought to pass legislation allowing low-risk state inmates to be released early if they are elderly or sickly.

His bills to establish medical and compassionate leave progressed deep into the Senate process this year, but the House paid them no attention, and the bills died.

Now, Brandes says, he wishes even more that his legislation had passed because it could save lives and slow the contagion in prisons. Without it, the weight of deciding whether to grant controversial early releases for inmates during this health emergency falls entirely to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“This is where elder release and medical release can get them back to their homes,” Brandes said. “The governor can do that.”

Rather than releasing certain inmates, the Florida Department of Corrections announced Friday it is resuming intake of inmates, which was temporarily suspended – meaning offenders will be arriving in prison right when COVID-19 infections behind bars begin to spread.

The Innocence Project of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Florida Council of Churches, and other human-rights and civil-rights advocates are sounding an alarm.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Scott McCoy, senior policy adviser, summarized it this way: “If our experience with this virus everywhere else in the country is a guide … this is a recipe for disaster.”

Contagion takes hold

On Sunday, the Florida Department of Corrections announced the first confirmed inmate case of COVID-19 – a prisoner at privately run Blackwater Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County – among its 96,000 state inmates.

The first employee was confirmed as infected two weeks. Since then, confirmed cases among state corrections employees grew to 23 in 13 prisons and three out of its four parole offices. Florida’s corrections system employs 24,000 corrections and parole workers.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported Sunday that 120 federal inmates and 54 staff were confirmed infected at two dozen federal facilities.

Eight federal inmate deaths were reported through Sunday at U.S. prisons in Ohio and Louisiana. After developing symptoms behind bars, the inmates were transferred to nearby hospitals where they were tested, confirmed positive, placed on ventilators, and died. 

Calls for swift and immediate action

The Innocence Project of Florida and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent a letter last week to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch calling for “swift and immediate action to try to mitigate the damage to thousands of incarcerated individuals and facility staff throughout the state of Florida.”

Their recommendations include releasing inmates to reduce the population of jails and prisons and to provide sufficient hygiene products to inmates and staff to “help keep all in the corrections community safe from this deadly virus.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Families Against Minimum Mandatories, Florida ACLU, Florida Council of Churches and others sent similar letters to federal prison authorities and to the governors of Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi in early March, before prison employees started testing positive in the state and federal prison systems.

The letters called for release of prisoners most vulnerable to the disease, particularly the elderly, those with underlying medical problems, and pregnant inmates. The letters also call for hygiene supplies and health information to enable inmates to protect themselves as much as they can, plans for testing to effectively keep the infected and the uninfected apart, and distancing without lockdowns.

The advocate letters stress that without proactive testing in prisons, infections are invisible until symptoms emerge – days or weeks beyond the point when a sick inmate became contagious.

In federal prisons, confirmed inmate infections quadrupled in three days, to 120 as reported Saturday, none in Florida. Confirmed infections among staff nearly doubled in those three days, to 54.

Ray Coleman Jr., president of AFGE Local 1570 representing 200 federal prison employees in Tallahassee, said in an interview that prisons are not ready for what’s coming. He said employees do not have sufficient protective equipment, bleach or even soap to safely do their jobs.

“There is no such thing as social distancing in a prison. Without testing, there’s no way of telling what’s really lurking behind the prison walls,” Coleman said. “As long as we’re rotating and transporting inmates into these institutions on a regular basis …that hazard and risk is raised tremendously. Additionally, until proper masks such as N95 respirators are available for every staff member coming and going, the chances of flattening the line (on rate of infections) are minimal.”

Democratic State Sen. Bill Montford says he’s worried about the numerous state prisons in his north Florida district. That area includes prisons where employee cases have been confirmed, meaning inmate infections are likely to follow soon.

“It’s going to be big problem,” Montford said. With the region still struggling to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael in 2018, hospitals will have an extraordinarily hard time treating the sick – be they inmates, prison staff, the general public or residents of two nursing homes, he said.