by David M. Reutter
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread across the nation, so did the push to release prisoners from the “Petri dish” of close confinement that exists inside jails and prisons. While some Florida jails released non-violent offenders, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) battened the hatches on its 93,000 prisoners to weather the storm.
To cope with its rising prison population in the 1990s, FDOC built human warehouses, or what is officially known as open bay dormitories. That resulted in anywhere from 80 to 200 prisoners living in the same building with double bunks spaced 3 feet apart. That has created a perfect environment for the highly contiguous COVID-19 disease to spread.
As of May 18, 2020, FDOC reported statistics on 65 prisons: 1,106 prisoners at 14 prisons and 237 staff at 43 prisons tested positive for COVID-19. Nine prisoners have died, and three of the deaths were prisoners at Sumter Correctional Institution. Seven hundred ninety-three positive cases were at five prisons with open bay dorms. Those prisons are: Homestead CI (231), Liberty CI (191), Hamilton CI (137), Tomoka CI (132), and Sumter CI (102).
How each prison handled the pandemic varied. For instance, in addition to 191 positive results, Liberty CI also reported 1,733 negative results. That means every prisoner was tested at least once. By contrast, Sumter CI reported only 54 negative results to accompany its 102 positive results. Had more prisoners been tested, there would undoubtedly be more positive results at Sumter.
In mid-April, I experienced chills, a five-day headache, body aches and sinus issues, but I never developed a fever or cough. Most of the prisoners in my dorm report experiencing similar symptoms. Three prisoners were removed from my dorm with respiratory distress, and two were reportedly taken to hospitals for pneumonia or low oxygen levels. A random test of 10 prisoners was made in my dorm in early May. Of those, there were eight positives, one negative, and one who refused the test.
FDOC acted in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by canceling visits and prohibiting volunteers from entering its prisons. Yet other operations continued. At Sumter, the prison industry, Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), continued to operate, and neither guards nor prisoners were allowed to wear masks. In fact, some prisoners who obtained masks from their work area and wore them on the compound had them confiscated by guards.
“The first case came from a PRIDE worker,” said a Sumter CI guard who requested anonymity. COVID-19 could only have entered the prison from a staff member, but it spread like wildfire once introduced into the prison. Sumter CI went into lockdown on April 8, 2020, with the first positive result.
In the ensuing weeks, every dorm went into medical quarantine at some point. That designation, FDOC says, was made when a prisoner exhibited COVID-19 symptoms or tested positive. In reality, the only difference between the lockdown and a medical quarantine was the latter required medical staff to take every prisoner’s temperature twice daily.
Prisoners who exhibited symptoms or tested positive were moved to an emptied open bay dorm. None had been removed from that dorm as of May 27, but more prisoners continue to be placed into it for isolation from the compound.
As prisoners struggled to keep themselves safe from infection, advocates were pushing FDOC and state officials to release prisoners. While FDOC has a furlough program, it is rarely used. FDOC said in a statement it does “not authorize the release of entire subpopulations for an indefinite amount of time.” It noted that Correctional Medical Release (CMR) is an option if the Florida Commission on Offender Review approves an FDOC recommendation. On average, only one to two prisoners receive CMR annually.
As of June 5, the number of Florida prisoners who had had died of COVID-19 had climbed to at least 15. “People are being sentenced to death,” said Vanessa Grullon, whose asthmatic husband is at Tomoka CI.
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