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Greg Newburn: Legislators must call a Special Session to address COVID-19 in Florida’s prisons

Lives are at stake, and the problem can no longer be ignored.

If you think COVID-19 is daunting now, imagine what it will be like inside Florida’s enormous prison system, where social distancing is impossible, quality health care doesn’t exist, and hand sanitizer is banned as contraband.

Nothing that happens in prison stays in prison for long when it comes to disease — thousands of corrections staff enter and leave daily, exposing themselves to illness and putting all of us on the outside at greater risk.

To save lives, preserve hospital beds, and slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Florida Legislature must call a Special Session and pass measures that allow for the immediate release of the most vulnerable from our prisons.

A Special Session to deal with a prison crisis isn’t unprecedented. In 1993, facing a prison overcrowding crisis that could no longer be ignored, the Florida Legislature called a Special Session to finally fix the problem. The result was the “Safe Streets Initiative,” which included sweeping changes to sentencing laws — including eliminating most mandatory minimums and increasing the percentage of time served before a prisoner could be released — as well as a large investment in new prisons. This bipartisan reform reduced overcrowding and crime continued to fall.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a threat at least as grave as overcrowding, and it demands similar action. Florida’s prisons are full of people at high risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus. As of June 2018, about one out of four state prisoners — 23,338 total — were elderly, with more than 1,700 over the age of 70.

Around 45% of elderly prisoners have no prior prison history, and more than 2,600 are incarcerated for drug offenses, including a 77-year-old woman. Thousands of other prisoners are already ill with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, current release options for elderly state prisoners are few.

Eligibility for “compassionate release” is limited to prisoners who are permanently incapacitated or terminally ill. Florida has no release mechanism for elderly prisoners, nor for prisoners who have a debilitating illness short of permanent incapacitation. As a result, anyone who visits a prison — as every legislator should — will meet blind people, people bound to wheelchairs or using walkers, and people using oxygen tanks to breathe.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, proposed a bill this year that would have given the Department of Corrections authority to identify elderly prisoners who could be released safely, along with the unilateral authority to release them. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to pass that bill. As a result, Florida’s prison system is left only with slow, overly bureaucratic release processes that are plainly insufficient to handle swift release should it prove necessary.

This leaves prisoners and corrections professionals at unacceptable risk.

Minimizing negative impacts to prisoners and the corrections professionals who care for them could require the speedy release of the elderly or chronically ill, and potentially other prisoners for whom the risk of continued incarceration exceeds the risk of release — for example, people serving sentences for nonviolent offenses, with little time left to serve.

Releasing these people would not threaten public safety and is the right thing to do in this crisis. Among criminal justice experts, it is universally accepted that most people age out of crime. The available data support the conclusion that we incarcerate elderly people long after public safety benefits have reached negative returns.

Some elderly prisoners have committed serious offenses, and deserve continued punishment. Even accounting for those people, however, it is beyond dispute that Florida incarcerates many sick and elderly people without any benefit in return. Their continued incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic may actually do us harm.

There is no more time to waste. The Legislature should call a Special Session and give prison officials the flexibility they need to save lives and protect prisoners, staff and the community. Lives are at stake, and the problem can no longer be ignored.

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Greg Newburn is Florida Director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

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