Southern Poverty Law Center sues for access to state prison records as COVID-19 spreads among inmates

The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing Florida prison authorities to get records it believes are public related to COVID-19 in state prisons. Photo: luoman/Getty Images

The Southern Poverty Law Center is demanding public records about state inmates at risk of contracting COVID-19 behind bars and is suing the Florida Department of Corrections to release them, the center announced Friday.

“The public has a right to know how FDC [the Department of Corrections] is handling COVID-19 in the prisons, which incarcerate nearly 96,000 people, including a substantial number who are elderly or medically vulnerable and thus at heightened risk from the virus,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney for the center in Florida.

The organization filed suit in Leon County Friday to compel state prison authorities to respond to public records requests it filed on March 20 and March 25. Those requests seek information about infected inmates and employees and the prison system’s policies and procedures for managing the disease as it spreads in the state’s 145 prisons.

The center states in its lawsuit that prison officials acknowledged the requests but failed to produce the public records, preventing public scrutiny of prison efforts to protect inmates and employees during the pandemic.

“Crowded prisons are ripe targets for the spread of COVID-19. Hundreds of incarcerated people in Florida’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and thousands more have been exposed. But despite the dangers this poses to Floridians inside and outside the prisons, FDC has not been transparent in how it’s dealing with this crisis,” Agarwal said.

She said the Department of Corrections, over the course of two months, provided “a single document in response to one of the 26 total categories of information requested and has averred it has no responsive documents to two other categories. It has not responded with regard to the remaining 23 categories.”

The department did not provide a immediate response, although it continues to publish a daily dashboard of statistics. The dashboard reports confirmed infections, tests pending, negative test results, and the number of inmate deaths, although not by name of the deceased, date of death, or by prison where the deceased inmate was incarcerated.

Through midday Friday, the Department of Corrections reported that 1,033 inmates and 231 prison employees were infected in 57 of its prisons and three of its four regional probation offices. Another 5,339 tests were negative.

The department reported Friday that it has administered 8,152 coronavirus tests, to about 8 percent of the prison population. That left nearly 88,000 inmates untested, including close to 7,000 being held in medical quarantine or medical isolation after being exposed to an infected person or exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

COVID-19 has killed nine inmates: seven at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, privately run in Santa Rosa County by The GEO Group, and two at Sumter Correctional Institution, a state-run prison near Bushnell in rural Sumter County, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The Department of Corrections reports five prisons have more than 100 confirmed infections among the inmates it has tested.

Through midday Friday, there were 191 confirmed cases at Liberty Correctional Institution, representing the vast majority of infections in Liberty County, with 172 more test results pending.

Homestead Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in southeast Florida, had the most confirmed infections, at 231.

Nine prisons have from one to 72 confirmed cases, and 1,780 test results were pending in state prisons statewide. The greatest number of tests pending were at Gadsden Correctional Institution, awaiting 929 test results, and Union Correctional Institution, awaiting 605.

Infections among employees were highest at South Bay Correctional Facility, privately run in Palm Beach County by The GEO Group, with 50 employees confirmed sick from coronavirus; Tomoka Correctional Institution in Volusia County, with 20 sick employees; Homestead and Sumter Correctional Institution, each with 16 staff members sick; Gadsden, with 15 employees sick; and Blackwater River, with 14.