With 28 inmates dead from COVID-19 in the Florida correctional system, one prison reform group is renewing its calls for the state to release at-risk inmates.
The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform says its request and similar ones have gone unanswered during the pandemic. As of Thursday, in addition to the 28 total inmate deaths, the Department of Corrections (DOC) reports 2,460 positive test results among 24,069 tests returned.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health reports 4,474 cases among correctional facility residents and staff as of Friday.
“It is long past time for Florida officials to stop ignoring the reality of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak in the prison system and take action to prevent further harm, including more deaths of incarcerated people and corrections staff,” said Carrie Boyd, policy counsel for SPLC Action, the advocacy arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There are almost certainly more people with COVID-19 in prisons that haven’t been tested, and the safe and humane way to ease this crisis is to release those who are most vulnerable.”
The coalition in March 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.
DOC has suspended prison visitations amid the pandemic, but inmates are not a completely isolated population as prisoners enter or are released. Moreover, correctional facilities by nature fly in the face of the Three Cs health officials say to avoid: closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.
“Continued overcrowding and inadequate health care almost certainly have made this pandemic worse in Florida’s prisons and jail,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Florida political director Kirk Bailey. “We need to get the medically frail, the elderly and those scheduled to get out soon out as quickly as possible.”
On Thursday, Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart also called for the state to release inmates with heart conditions, diabetes and respiratory illnesses.
Outbreaks in prisons would eventually spread to the general public, the coalition warns. But Gov. Ron DeSantis has classified correctional facilities as outbreaks sites with little interaction with the general public.
“It’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s just a discrete issue,” he told reporters in May, separate from “community outbreak.”
Additionally, the Governor has said most people in the justice system who test positive are asymptomatic, in part because of the younger demographic who make up much of the prison population. And in an attempt to lesson the blow on the prison system, other states have released dangerous inmates, he has added.
“Reducing the prison population is the best answer from both a humanitarian and public health perspective to prevent more COVID-19 deaths,” Bailey said. “Is it too much to ask to release those who do not pose a danger to society and are most vulnerable to COVID-19?”