ACLU demands ‘transparency’ from FL governor and head of state prisons, where inmate deaths are rising

At Hamilton Correctional Institution, a state prison, 203 inmates and six prison employees were infected through Wednesday, representing two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases in that county. Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

With 15 inmates dead of COVID-19 in state prisons and infections spreading, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is demanding transparency from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch about what is happening behind prison walls.

ACLU of Florida delivered a letter to the governor and the DOC secretary earlier this week, insisting the state disclose details about inmate deaths, the extent of testing, how medical quarantines are being implemented, and how the department “is working to curb the spread” of coronavirus in its 143 public and private prisons.

The DOC incarcerates about 95,000 inmates around the state.

Micah W. Kubic ( picture from ACLU of Kansas)
Micah W. Kubic, executive director of ACLU of Florida. Credit: ACLU of Kansas)

“It appears that the reported 12 deaths [updated Wednesday to 15] only account for those who received testing prior to their death and does not account for any COVID-related deaths where individuals had not yet received testing or were tested after they had died. This is particularly concerning, as less than 15 percent of the prison population has received testing,” wrote Micah W. Kubic, executive director of ACLU Florida.

“Based on the lack of information being provided” by the state, the ACLU wants the DOC to:

• Release information on how many inmates have died in each prison this year, to compare with deaths in the first half of last year;

• Test all inmates being held in medical quarantine and remove inmates who are not infected;

• Waive charges to inmates for health care during the pandemic;

• Provide information on conditions in medical isolation at each prison.

Inmates are placed in medical quarantine if they are exposed to an infected person. Inmates are placed in medical isolation if they are showing COVID-19 symptoms or are suspected of being sick.

“The Florida Department of Corrections is not being transparent with the public about the impact COVID-19 is having in Florida prisons,” Kubic wrote.

“We have questions about the accuracy of COVID-19 reported deaths in prisons, how FDOC is curbing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, and the treatment of those in medical quarantine and isolation. This is unacceptable, both as a moral issue and for its implications on public health for incarcerated people, their loved ones, and the broader community.”

The letter says copies were also sent to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Florida Commission on Offender Review Chair Melinda Coonrod and Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Through Wednesday, the DOC reported 15 coronavirus deaths, without disclosing any details about who the inmates are or where they were incarcerated.

The Wednesday report said 1,552 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19; 646 test results are pending; and 12,565 tests were negative; for total test results of 14,763, about 9 percent of the inmate population.

It said 21 inmates were in medical isolation, suspected of being infected, and more than 5,000 others were in medical quarantine after being exposed to an infected person.

At eight state prisons, more than 100 inmates have tested positive so far; at three, more than 200 have tested positive.

The Florida Phoenix has been following both state and federal prisons during the COVID-19 crisis, including inmate infections and deaths, secrecy, and the issues of inmates eligible to be released early to help curtail the coronavirus crisis.

Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., is the latest to be ordered by courts to expedite release of low-security, medically vulnerable inmates. Fifteen inmates there have died, six in the past 10 days. Credit: Sarah D. Davis/Getty Images.

In a two-part series on federal prisons, the Phoenix found that federal prison officials have delayed releasing certain inmates to serve in home confinement, despite directives from the courts and the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal officials do not tell the public which inmates gets out early.

The Phoenix series also reviewed hundreds of pages of federal court records in lawsuits that have shined light on prison conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those include cramped cells and crowded dormitories that make it difficult to practice the kind of social distancing that goes on in the outside world to avoid exposure to coronavirus.

In some cases, an inmate can’t even get sufficient soap and antiseptics to stay clean — one of the fundamental U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for avoiding infection during the COVID-19 crisis.