COVID-19 death toll rises in Florida prisons; inmate advocates demonstrate, families grieve

Inmate advocates demonstrate at the Florida Capitol to demand safer conditions in Florida-based prisons where nearly 100 inmates have died of COVID-19. Credit: Jordan Mazurek., Florida Prisoner Solidarity

The official death toll from COVID-19 among state prison inmates in Florida rose Friday to 89, spanning cases in 25 of the Department of Corrections’ 57 major prisons.

Three prison staff have died of the disease as well, according to the the Florida Department of Health, which tracks coronavirus deaths in state prisons. The corrections department also tracks certain data on COVID-19.

Florida Prisoner Solidarity, which seeks to replace prisons with alternative correction and rehabilitation placements, co-hosted a demonstration with other inmate advocates last weekend in Tallahassee to draw attention to the death toll, unsafe prison conditions, and concerns about health care.

At the demonstration, Chrystal Comacho said her father, Henry Comacho, 55, became the youngest inmate to die of COVID in a Florida-run prison. In a videotaped speech, she said he died four days after being returned to the prison following a hospitalization where he was treated on a ventilator. She was not allowed to visit him or speak with him.

Henry Comacho, convicted of murder, would not have qualified for any form of early release, but his daughter said he was not sentenced to death and should have been better protected from the deadly virus.

“The DOC gave my father a death sentence,” she said. “We fought tooth and nail to find out what was going on with him. To this day, no one can tell me what happened to my father, or even whether they tried to resuscitate him.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Cares and other civil rights and inmate rights groups have been sounding the alarm about inmate illness and deaths in facilities throughout the pandemic. Lawsuits demanding safer conditions are ongoing.

The Department of Corrections by state law has no authority to release inmates before they complete their sentences, even during the pandemic, said Press Secretary Kayla McLaughlin.

Inmate advocates continue to call on Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida leaders to exercise their powers of clemency and furlough to transfer low-security-risk state inmates into home confinement. DeSantis has not announced any transfers or programs for getting inmates out because of COVID-19. The state Clemency Board, which he heads, has held only one meeting this year, back in January. It is scheduled to hold another in September.

The deadliest state prison in Florida so far is South Florida Reception Center, a state-run prison for young and adult males in Doral. Sixteen inmates there have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Health.

Multiple deaths also are reported by the Department of Health at Dade Correctional Institution (CI), with nine fatalities; Columbia CI, with seven; Suwanee CI, with seven; Blackwater River Correctional Facility, privately run in Santa Rosa County by the GEO Group, with seven; and between one and six inmate deaths at 19 other prisons where inmates have died. At one prison, its lone death was an employee.

In addition to the death toll, the Department of Correction’s latest report said more than 14,000 inmates have been or are in quarantine or isolation after being exposed to infected persons or exhibiting symptoms.

Among those tested, 15,481 state inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at some point, or roughly 19 percent. DOC McLaughlin said Florida’s 57 major prisons incarcerate just over 86,000 inmates, as of July 30. Nearly 63,000 have tested negative at some point in the pandemic, and 11,528 who tested positive were cleared after being isolated and returned to their cells or dorms. Not all inmates have been tested.

The highest number of COVID-19 infections through Friday were at Columbia CI, with 1,338 diagnosed cases, and Lowell CI, a prison for women and teen-age girls in Ocala, with 1,000.

Among Florida’s federally-run prisons, three inmates are dead from coronavirus at Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Sumter County, one at Miami Federal Correctional Institution, and two at Miami Federal Detention Center, which holds non-convicted detainees awaiting court proceedings.

Unlike Florida’s state-run prisons, federal prisons around the nation have been granting releases to monitored home confinement to reduce crowding and curb infections.

Through Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had placed 7,566 low-security-risk federal inmates on home confinement under authority granted in the pandemic by Congress and Attorney General William Barr, reducing its inmate population to just over 156,000. Inmates on home confinement wear ankle monitors.