The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is suing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to respond to two public records requests into the department’s handling of COVID-19.
SPLC has asked the department for documents on its COVID-19 plans, policies and procedures for the disease, positive diagnostic tests and more. However, those requests have gone unanswered, according Shalini Goel Agarwal, an attorney for the civil rights advocacy group.
“Crowded prisons are ripe targets for the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “Hundreds of incarcerated people in Florida’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and thousands more have been exposed. But despite the dangers this poses to Floridians inside and outside the prisons, (DOC) has not been transparent in how it’s dealing with this crisis.”
According to a Thursday update from the department, 943 inmates have tested positive, up from 843 the day before. And 225 staffers, up from 208 the previous day, have tested positive systemwide.
SPLC sent the requests on March 20 and March 25 but has yet heard back from the department, prompting the Thursday court filing.
“The public has a right to know how (DOC) is handling COVID-19 in the prisons, which incarcerate nearly 96,000 people, including a substantial number who are elderly or medically vulnerable and thus at heightened risk from the virus,” Agarwal said. “Lack of transparency prevents the public from fully understanding the conditions inside Florida prisons during the pandemic and effectively advocating for improvements.”
Nationally, correctional facilities are some of the leading hot zones for the novel coronavirus, along with meatpacking plants and nursing homes. Outside of South Florida, prisons are some of the main drivers of new cases in the state.
On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis responded to questions about cases in the prison system.
“If you look at some of these other states you’ll have massive outbreaks in prisons,” he said. “There’s some states where you have five, six, seven hundred prisoners, a thousand prisoners testing positive.”
Relatively few inmates have needed critical care or ventilators, the Governor said, largely on account of the younger demographics of incarcerated individuals. Only nine inmates have died in Florida — seven at Blackwater River Correctional Facility and two at Sumter Correctional Institution.
SPLC filed the suit in Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit.
“While (DOC) has acknowledged our request, it has provided very little information about its policies and procedures to deal with COVID-19,” Agarwal said. “The law does not allow (DOC) to respond when it feels like it because of the pandemic; because of the pandemic, (DOC) must comply now.”