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Amid COVID-19, Florida confronts age-old question: Do the old and sick need to be locked up?

Florida’s prison population and staff are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. But the Legislature did nothing to make it easier to free sick and elderly inmates.

On the day the Florida Legislature voted on the budget, Florida had 390 positive cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths statewide.

Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, a leader on prison issues, made a point before the vote to ask what was being done to address a potential outbreak of the virus in the state prison system. Inmates can’t even have hand sanitizer, she said, and lawmakers can no longer visit to keep tabs on what is happening inside.

“We know that one outbreak in our prison system is going to devastate the inmates we have,” she said. “We have thousands of people over 60 housed in our facilities.”

She was ignored.

One month later, Florida’s aging prison population, like the state as a whole, is being stalked by a deadly virus. It’s going to cost money to care for those who require hospitalization. As of Wednesday, 123 inmates and 98 staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus. The actual numbers could be far higher, but testing of inmates has been limited. Among inmates, the rate of positive tests is extraordinarily high — nearly 42 percent — suggesting just how tall the bar is for getting tested.

Four inmates, all over 60, have died from COVID-19 and nearly 4,000 inmates are in medical quarantine because they’ve been exposed to the virus.

During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers proposed bills to help streamline the process of releasing sick or elderly inmates — populations most at risk of dying from the disease. Both bills went nowhere. Legislators like Hart wonder what could have been.

There are currently about 23,000 Florida inmates over 50, a population that has increased by 12.5% over the past five years as the overall prison population has shrunk. They are an expensive group to maintain, even when there isn’t a pandemic afoot. Because many abused drugs before prison, they tend to be in poor health to begin with. Prison healthcare, not known for its excellence, often makes matters worse.

In 2018, elderly inmates — those 50 and over — accounted for half of all hospital admissions, despite making up just 24.2% of the population.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes proposed a slate of criminal justice reform bills this past session, two of which would have addressed the sick and elderly. One bill would have created a streamlined process for the release of inmates with terminal or debilitating illnesses. The other would have established a conditional release program for inmates over 65 who had served at least 85% of their sentence.

Both bills died in their last committee stops.

“There are just so many paths we could have taken to reduce our prisoner population,” Hart said this week.

In some states, frail or older inmates are being released as a solution to curbing the spread among the most susceptible population.

The larger issue is whether punishment becomes pointless at some juncture. Many inmates have committed violent, deadly acts and the families of their victims could well be strongly opposed to letting them out — ever. But in other cases, aging inmates have lived self-destructive lives of drug abuse and petty, repetitive criminal activity, and the question is whether it is counterproductive to hold them if they are seen as no longer a threat, except to themselves. Especially during the spread of a deadly virus.

Currently, some inmates deemed “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated” and not a danger to themselves or others can be referred by the Department of Corrections to have their cases heard by the three-person Florida Commission on Offender Review. However, the Department of Corrections can only refer — the decision is made by others.

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement Wednesday night that releasing an inmate is a “complex process” that involves a proper post-release plan for medical services and housing options that can take months of planning ahead of release.

“For these reasons, I believe accelerated early release creates significant risk,” he wrote. “As Secretary, I promise to remain diligent and focused on doing all I can to protect those who work and are housed in our correctional institutions."

The commission grants early release in about half of such cases, but the numbers are exceedingly small. In 2016-17, the most recent data available, 34 inmates were recommended by the department for conditional medical release. Sixteen got it.

Last Wednesday, the commission granted two longtime prison inmates, 70-year-old Edward Jones and 48-year old Raul Santiago, medical release, although the exact nature of their health woes are not public.

A third inmate, 68-year-old Ernest Dials, was denied release. He’s serving time on a murder charge.

Brandes said his bill on conditional medical release bill would have hastened the process, giving more authority and oversight to the Department of Corrections, making Florida’s system similar to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which Inch used to run.

He said he was inspired to file the bill after he visited Lake Correctional Institution in Central Florida last summer and met an inmate with cancer who had been bedridden for years. The warden said he had tried to refer him to the commission, but was told the man had no chance of getting release since he had committed assaults in the past.

“The [Florida Department of Corrections] knows the inmates that are likely to have problems,” Brandes said, “The simple truth is that if someone is facing Stage 4 cancer, they are not looking to go out and rob banks.”

Not everyone agrees that getting old and feeble should pave the way to early release from prison.

Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Bay Republican like Brandes, chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which would have considered the companion bills to Brandes’ Senate measures had they been permitted to move through the process.

“People in prison in their 70s didn’t get there in their 70s,” Grant said. “If people entrusted with maintaining public safety are letting people out of prison … I certainly am going to have some questions.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, head of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, is likewise skeptical, even though he worked with local officials to release hundreds of pretrial detainees in the Pinellas jail, which he runs, as a way to help foster social distancing behind bars.

He said advocates are using coronavirus as a vehicle “to promote what they usually promote.”

It’s “the same mantra,” said Gualtieri. “They shouldn’t use a tragedy like this as an impetus for promoting a political agenda when there’s nothing to back it up.”

‘Criminal menopause’

Meanwhile, families, advocates and inmates are worried that those in leadership are missing the point.

“We are not talking about releasing a 35-year-old person. We’re talking about someone past their prime,” said Denise Rock, of the advocacy group Florida Cares. “Studies show that people who have aged have reached criminal menopause and are not going to be committing crimes. And they are ill.”

Rock noted that 65-year-old Jeffrey Sand, the first inmate to die of COVID-19, was charged with aggravated assault after unsuccessfully breaking into a home in St. Augustine and threatening the homeowner with nunchucks in 2018. He was on probation at the time for threatening a judge over email, according to the arrest report.

Rock said the incident happened shortly after Sand’s wife committed suicide, and that he was abusing drugs and alcohol at the time. Sand died April 9.

“He shouldn’t have been in there in the first place,” Rock said. “I don’t think his life should have ended like that.”

Doreen Weisz, whose 67-year-old husband Bruce Weisz has been incarcerated since 1988, said she wishes he could come home where he could be monitored and taken care of. He is serving a life sentence for the murder of a jeweler.

Weisz has thyroid issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and has had cancer twice.

His wife said she is afraid he is not getting the attention he needs at Martin Correctional, where one inmate has tested positive of the nine inmates tested in total. There are no staff members at Martin who have tested positive.

“I haven’t seen him in six weeks and it could be that you’ll never see that loved one again. It’s not a pretty death. It’s a very hard death,” she said. “It’s very scary. They die alone.”

Robert Bittle, a 53-year-old inmate at South Florida Reception Center, a prison a medical facility near Miami, said he hopes the state considers more medical and elderly release cases so that more people survive the outbreaks.

Five staff members at the facility have tested positive. No inmates have tested positive, but only 14 were tested.

“Once it gets in here, it’s going to be like a brush fire,” said Bittle, serving time for a series of robberies.

His wife, Roxanne Bittle, has written letters to the state begging for conditional medical release.

“Please help prevent a disastrous outcome for Robert,” she wrote. “He is very susceptible to contracting the ongoing coronavirus. This would mean inevitable death for him.”

Bittle has a brain disorder that requires a shunt to regulate the flow of cerebrosprinal fluid to his brain. Without enough fluid to the brain, he experiences serious neurological problems. He also has early stage dementia, has lost most of his vision, and until recently had been staying in the palliative care unit. He depends on a wheelchair despite being able to walk.

The facility ran out of walkers for inmates to use, his wife said.

“They’re killing us,” he said in a phone interview. “I know we’re prisoners and I know people don’t give two s---- about us … but it’s not going to be good.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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