The coronavirus crisis permeates every aspect of our lives, including the prison industry.
Responding to reports that seven employees of the Department of Corrections tested positive for COVID-19 (an eighth was confirmed Monday), the reform-minded Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice argues to release some of the state’s 96,000 convicts.
Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for SPLC Action, notes that inmates “are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19.
“They are housed in close quarters and can’t practice social distancing. We need to get people out of jails and prisons. We don’t need to have almost 100,000 people locked up at a cost of almost $3 billion a year. The best answer to public health and humanitarian concerns is to get people out,” McCoy asserts.
Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, believes action must be urgent.
“The time to act is right now we cannot delay any longer. For the safety and health of all Floridians,” Gross said, “we need to take action immediately to curb the spread of COVID-19 and prevent any mass outbreak in our prisons.”
“Gov. Ron DeSantis must heed public health experts’ recommendations and safely release those who do not pose a danger to society and are most vulnerable to COVID-19 – particularly the elderly and sick. We need to reduce dangerous overcrowding in our criminal legal system now,” Gross added, “before it’s too late.”
Another advocate contends that coronavirus-ridden correctional facilities is tantamount to a “humanitarian crisis,” especially regarding aging and infirm inmates.
“This is not about sentencing reform, this is about a humanitarian crisis. I don’t know if society realizes how many people over 60 are in our prisons, just stuck in there for a robbery or battery 35 years ago. They haven’t posed a threat to anyone in decades. Keeping them in prison right now actually poses a threat to their lives,” said Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares Charity Corp.
“We must let the elderly in our prisons return home, electronically monitor them if you’d like, just don’t leave them in prison where it is impossible to practice social distancing in prison,” Rock urged.
Lawmakers have sounded the alarm about the correctional industry crisis, where many patients are old or mentally ill, and systemic underfunding and chaos could set the stage for a coronavirus catastrophe.
“Can you imagine what would happen if that virus breaks out anywhere at any of our facilities,” Rep. Dianne Hart said in March, as COVID-19 was only beginning to ramp up. “There’s 95,000 inmates. And we’re in a constant movement, we’re moving people from one facility to another every single day.”
Inmates have been deprived of essentials like soap and toilet paper, and even assuming there was some seismic change in recent weeks, the damage may already have been done regarding the insidious COVID-19 virus given its incubation period could be weeks long.