As COVID-19 threatens Florida prisons, reform coalition wants more inmates released

Social distancing can't take place in crowded prisons, advocates say.

As a spreading coronavirus puts increasing strain on Florida prisons, criminal justice advocates want more inmates released.

Members of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform urged state officials to expedite the process of getting people out of jails and prisons. That could be through commutation of sentences and the release of non-violent offenders.

“Gov. Ron DeSantis has the power to commute prison sentences, and he’s not doing it,” said Micah Kubic, executive director for the ACLU of Florida. “There are roughly 96,000 people in Florida prisons right now, many of which shouldn’t be there in the first place. To avoid a major coronavirus outbreak, we need to safely reduce the prison and jail populations.”

The Coalition last month sent a letter to DeSantis suggesting a decarceration plan involving retroactive sentencing reforms. The group also wants more proactive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus to prevent cases of COVID-19 within the contained environments of prisons.

Advocates remain disappointed at a lack of effort so far to protect the inmate population from the virus.

“We aren’t letting people out of jails and prisons, and it does not appear we are actively testing prisoners to determine who has COVID-19, although it’s tough to say for sure since the Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t shared what it’s doing,” said Carrie Boyd, policy counsel for SPLC Action, the advocacy arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The best answer to public health and humanitarian concerns is to get people out. Incarcerated people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19. They are housed in close quarters and can’t practice social distancing.”

Four inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Milton. But a number of prisons in the state have corrections officers or staff who have tested positive. Apalachee Correctional Institute, in Sneads, reports seven infected employees.

“The men and women incarcerated in Florida know they’re in danger of a COVID-19 outbreak. Corrections employees know it too,” said Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares Charity

“It is not hard to imagine a situation where a serious infection sweeps through the prison system putting the lives of thousands of incarcerated people and FDC employees in danger. The Florida Department of Corrections won’t have enough healthy people to maintain order. This is a disaster waiting to happen unless the Governor is proactive. If he gets people out now, we can avoid the worst-case scenario.”

Advocates say every bit of hesitation at this point puts populations needlessly at risk and exposes the state to a whole other legal threat.

“Is it too much to ask to release those who do not pose a danger to society and are most vulnerable to COVID-19— particularly the elderly and immuno-compromised?,” Kubic said.

“We need to act before it’s too late. Incarcerated individuals can’t socially distance and we don’t want people dying in prison due to inaction.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • John Kociuba

    April 8, 2020 at 8:14 am

    Dear Floridians ~

    Re: Fear & Propaganda

    You do realize you allowed government and media to needlessly destroy your careers, savings, housing, credit, over 300 dead Floridians out of 21.3 million Floridians?!!!

    You do realize that, right? Maybe it’s time to turn your TVs off and go to your local public libraries?

    99% recovery rate without hospitalization! GET THE MEMO!

    And because of this you can’t buy toilet paper or food seeds? Lmao! Wow!

  • JusticeforAll

    April 8, 2020 at 11:05 am

    The ACLU is wrong. the Gov. does not have to “commute” sentences. If the problem is real in the prisons, the areas where it is very real, the prisoners and guards have to be tested first. They can use the same 6 foot guidelines as a first resort.
    If there is still a problem, some of the prisoners (least dangerous) can be let out of jail, with an ankle bracelet tracking their whereabouts. We don’t need them running around committing crimes/or infecting people.
    Then, after the virus danger is gone, those people can be rounded up and put back in prison.
    A pandemic is no reason for everyone in prison to have their sentences commuted.
    One of the reasons the ACLU is pushing for this, is so felons can vote after they get out of prison. This is an underhanded way for the ACLU to push up the Democrat vote.

  • Sarah Fiebig

    April 8, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    Micah Kubic, executive director for the ACLU of Florida, stated that many people incarcerated in Florida prisons should not be there to begin with.

    According to The Council of State Governments Justice Center in their findings in a report dated June 18, 2019, technical violations for people on probation/parole (such as missing appointment with supervision officers or failing drug tests) account for nearly ¼ of ALL state prison admissions in this country. Technical supervision violations account for $2.8 billion dollars spent annually in this country.

    In 13 states, more than 1 in 3 people in prison on any given day are there for a supervision violation. In 20 states, more than half of prison admissions are due to supervision violations.

    In addition, we have all the people on the “sex offender” registry. In Florida, registering one day late or forgetting to register your mother-in-law’s car which has stayed on your property for more than 5 days can land you in prison for 4 to 5 years – often longer than the original prison sentence. The California Sex Offender Management Board (recommended by the U. S. Federal Government) reported that this country spends anywhere from 10 to 40 billion dollars a year to monitor the registry. At the same time, ALL research, including by the Department of Justice, is showing a re-offense rate for registrants (taken collectively) in the single digits. Additionally, the DOJ has also found that over 90% of new sex crimes will be committed by people NOT on the registry.

    There are some very dangerous, violent people who need to be incarcerated and monitored closely for the protection of society. But there are so many people who are not a threat who remain incarcerated or on the registry, costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year. With our U. S. economy beginning to tank, do taxpayers want to continue locking up people for such trite issues as failing to check in with a probation officer or registering one day late as a “sex offender”? There are better and more economical ways of handling these nonthreatening issues. For one, remove all of the people on the publicized registry who have one-time-only offenses and are living lives as law-abiding citizens.

    Sarah Fiebig
    Media Chair for Florida Action Committee (FAC). FAC is a nonprofit whose purpose is to promote the prevention of sexual abuse while preserving the safety and dignity of all citizens through carefully structured laws targeting the truly violent, forced, and/or dangerous predatory acts of sex. FAC opposes a publicized registry of sex offenders and seeks to bring an end to the humiliation of people who have already paid for their crimes and are not re-offending.

  • Roxanne D Bittle

    April 8, 2020 at 10:39 pm

    My husband is in SFRC in F Dorm medical. He is 53 years and in need of brain surgery. Because of his brain disorder, he has a low immune system. In fact, he has gotten a brain infection at two different occasions while in jail. He is very susceptible to getting the COVID-19 Corona virus.
    I am hoping and praying that he will be released for Home Detention until his Attorney Ade Griffen comes to a resolution with the court concerning his appeal. That way we can make sure he does get to the neurosurgeon and all his follow up appointments.

    There are other men in that Medical F Dorm that should be sent home because their medical conditions makes them so vulnerable to the COVID-19 VIRUS. Their medical condition renders them to be no harm to society. As my husband would be no harm. He is legally blind and has a family who will care for him.

    My husband just told me this morning that an 82 year old inmate Charlie William’s with a brain tumor fell at 3 am. THIS WAS IN SFRC MEDICAL F DORM. My husband checked on him. He was unresponsive and was bleeding on the side of his head. My husband went to the nurses’ office knocked on the door and called out to them. They were asleep. He checked on the old man. He was still unresponsive. He went back to the nurses office. This time they answered groggily. They went to the old man and got him to bed. My husband told him they should call 911. Later on, my husband heard him getting up. He wheeled him to the bathroom and wheeled him back and helped him to his bed. The old man fell again about 6:50 am. This time a chunk of his head was hanging. My husband said he could see his skull. They did not get him out of there into the ambulance until about 10:30 am. THIS IS HORRENDOUS!
    Please help.


    Mrs. Roxanne D. Bittle

Comments are closed.


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