Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was “effective,” even after the virus sickened roughly 20 percent of inmates and killed 120 in prisons.
Inch, who recently recovered from his own battle with COVID-19, downplayed initial fears that the virus would spread “like wildfire” inside prisons during the outset of the pandemic.
“It probably would have if we had done nothing, but that’s not actually what happened,” Inch said during a Sept. 10 interview with The Florida Channel, which aired Monday.
Inch’s remarks, made to the state-funded news outlet after declining to interview with the Times/Herald, did not jibe with the description of chaotic conditions that leaked out early on in the pandemic from families of those incarcerated and criminal justice advocates who say Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration did not do enough to halt the spread of the virus.
“If no one takes notice, they are going to kill our loved ones,” said Cynthia Cooper, whose husband is incarcerated in Columbia Correctional Institution, where at least eight inmates have died. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was afraid of something more than him just being in prison. But it’s come to that.”
In the interview, however, Inch said he was “exceptionally proud” of the department’s staff and managed-care contractor, Centurion, in the handling of the pandemic. He also noted that five of the state’s 50 major institutions have not had single case of COVID-19.
“We have protected over 80 percent of the inmate population from the virus, and the majority who have contracted the virus have been asymptomatic or very minor,” said Inch, who oversees the care of roughly 84,000 inmates.
Is 80 percent really good?
Greg Newburn, the Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, scoffed at Inch’s contention that 80 percent is a passing mark.
That figure translates to 15,983 inmates who have contracted the virus, and 117 prisoners who have died since the start of the pandemic in March. It does not include the 2,940 staff members who have been diagnosed with the disease, and the three corrections officers who died after becoming ill with COVID-19.
“If 20 percent of the overall state population has been infected, would anyone call that a success?” he told the Times/Herald. The infection rate statewide is about 3.1 percent (about 671,000 known cases as of Wednesday in a population of about 21.5 million). If 20 percent of the population contracted the virus, that would be about 4.3 million people.
But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argued Inch, was trying to convey the message that the “worst is over” for the department when it comes to the pandemic’s impact.
“I think he was faced with the worst-case scenario, and the worst case hasn’t played out. It’s been terrible, but it clearly hasn’t been that 85 percent of our facilities and 1,000 or 1,500 people are dead,” said Brandes, vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “We have weathered what we believe is the worst of the storm, including our secretary and his deputy secretary getting COVID-19.”
Inch said during the interview that he sees the state’s prison system heading in a positive direction, which is why he intends to lift the ban on visitation starting Oct. 2.
“In the last two weeks, we’ve only had 263 new inmate positive cases spread across half of our facilities. It is very encouraging,” he said.
When visitations resume, they will be by appointment only and no kids under the age of 13 will be allowed. Inch had initially sought to lift the visitation ban in June. He even drafted a plan to do so, but a sudden surge in new COVID-19 cases during July and August ruined his plans.
Coping with the summer surge
A summer resurgence of the pandemic wreaked havoc on state prisons, infecting more than 13,000 inmates and killing 65 in July and August alone. More than 2,000 staff members were also infected during this two-month period.
“I don’t think any of us expected the wave of July and August,” Inch said, noting the department’s response remained focused on enhanced sanitation, as well as isolating and testing asymptomatic individuals.
Inmate hospitalizations reached the highest peak on Aug. 3, with 73 inmates in hospitals receiving treatment for COVID-19, Inch said. Hospitalization numbers have significantly dropped, with 29 inmates hospitalized as of Sept. 8, he said.
The Department of Corrections does not regularly provide data on inmate hospitalizations, despite repeated requests from various news outlets, making it difficult to track the severity of COVID-19 cases in prisons throughout the pandemic.
Inch, however, said the department put an emphasis on minimizing the strain on the state’s healthcare infrastructure. He said that was a concern for DeSantis and Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.
DeSantis, as recently as this week, touted low hospital bed usage as a sign of success even as pockets of the state are still grappling with the virus.
“It was certainly a concern for the governor and a concern of the surgeon general to not overwhelm the medical system, the ultimate metric with the pandemic,” Inch said. “So, that was certainly our desire as well, with the action we took for keeping the virus out of our facilities and once in our facilities to keep it separate.”
Agency spokeswoman Michelle Glady clarified on Wednesday that any inmate who required hospital level treatment in Florida received it.
“Because of our mitigation and prevention efforts, at no point did our hospitalizations overwhelm a local medical hospital, or exceed our capabilities to treat any inmate who needed it,” Glady said.
Moving forward, Inch said, the department will continue embracing the same strategy, which is focused on enhanced cleaning measures, requiring staff and inmates to wear masks, and isolate and test asymptomatic individuals.
“It’s proven effective, again, we have protected over 80 percent of the population from this virus,” Inch reiterated.