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Florida to lift ban on prison visitations next month

Department of Corrections officials have yet to outline the specific threshold that will determine whether a prison is safe enough for visitors.

Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch on Friday announced that starting Oct. 2 he will lift the state’s ban on visiting prisons that has deprived thousands of inmates from seeing their loved ones since mid-March.

Suspending prison visitation was one of the first measures Inch put in place to try and minimize the spread of the coronavirus in Florida’s prison system. In a video announcement Friday, Inch said he plans to resume visitations “where it is safe and appropriate to do so” because he understands they are key to maintaining family bonds.

“I am confident we can move forward safely with a careful approach,” said Inch, who recently recovered from his own battle with COVID-19. “We will reopen visitation with cautious optimism, and with your cooperation, I know we can be successful.”

Department of Corrections officials have yet to outline the specific threshold that will determine whether a prison is safe enough for visitors. A prison’s eligibility, however, is likely to be tied to how many inmates are battling COVID-19 or exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness, according to Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady.

Glady said the department will release more information about the new visitation policies next week and as Oct. 2 gets closer.

“Visitations will look much different than before, numerous safety measures will be in place and interactions with your loved ones will be modified,” he said without providing too many details.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, 15,812 inmates and 2,836 staff members in Florida’s state prisons have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness. The disease has killed 117 inmates and three correctional officers as of Friday.

In Florida, dozens of prisons have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. Some prisons — such as Columbia Correctional Institution and Lowell Correctional Institution — have seen as many 1,000 inmates test positive for the disease.

Glady noted the thousands of inmates who have recovered since being diagnosed with the disease and been in and out of medical isolation, the term used by corrections officials to identify symptomatic inmates who have been separated from the general population.

The number of inmates in medical isolation will play a role in determining whether a prison is safe for in-person visitations, Glady said.

Inch’s decision to lift the ban on prison visitations comes a few weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state would be lifting a ban on visiting nursing homes.

“Part of having a healthy society is understanding that human beings seek affection,” DeSantis said at a news conference Sept. 1. “Many of the folks understand that they have loved ones who are in the last stage of their life. They’re not demanding a medical miracle … They just would like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody.”

DeSantis has yet to publicly comment on the decision to allow visitors back into prisons, where thousands of inmates have yearned to see their loved ones for months while the coronavirus rapidly spread through the system.

Inmates have been able to communicate with their loved ones by email and video calls since Inch first suspended visitations on March 11.