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Prisoners are old, sick and sitting ducks for coronavirus. What now?

As the Department of Corrections prepares for coronavirus, advocates worry about the population
As coronavirus moves through the state, advocates worry about what could happen if inmates get sick. [CHERIE DIEZ  |  Tampa Bay Times]
As coronavirus moves through the state, advocates worry about what could happen if inmates get sick. [CHERIE DIEZ | Tampa Bay Times]

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Florida Department of Corrections announced Friday night that a total of seven staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Across Florida, county jails have begun releasing hundreds of inmates to avoid a worst-case scenario with coronavirus: that the virus will find its way into the dense, immobile population and spread like wildfire.

But for state prisons, which house about 94,000 inmates, a number of them elderly or ill, releasing prisoners is complicated, bureaucratic and rare.

Related: Seven Florida prison system employees have tested positive for coronavirus

Greg Newburn, the director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the situation potentially catastrophic. He said if the virus got into a prison, inmates can’t practice social distancing or proper prevention techniques.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed an employee at Marion Correctional Institution Work Camp tested positive for coronavirus. On Friday, the department said seven employees had tested positive. It includes one case at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution.

“The virus finds itself in an environment where it is perfectly suited to thrive and spread,” Newburn said.

The Florida Department of Corrections can’t decide whether to release inmates on its own — statutes delegate that to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which only handles a few dozen cases a year. And those are only for people considered permanently incapacitated or facing imminent death, not just any elderly inmate, Newburn said.

The governor also has power to commute sentences, which under former Gov. Rick Scott became rare. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to consider commuting sentences of inmates who aren’t a threat to the public to minimize coronavirus risk. The advocacy organization also asked the Florida Legislature to convene for a special session to address the issue, since as it stands the agency has no easy and efficient way to reduce the population.

“We have nothing in place for an emergency, we just have no mechanism that says, wait a second, this is different so we need different rules,” Newburn said.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Jeff Brandes introduced a bill to the Florida Senate in hopes of creating a conditional medical release program housed within the Department of Corrections instead of having to outsource to the commission. It died in committee.

Brandes said the Department of Corrections has looked into whether it’s better to disperse elderly inmates or keep them together and decided it was best to have them spread around.

He said while the department is working to control potential breaches into the system, the governor should consider commuting sentences for elderly inmates who are a low risk to society.

“I think generally this kind of heightens the need for additional judicial discretion in Florida, and frankly a clemency process that is functional,” he said.

To prevent people with the virus from introducing it into the prison system, the department has ended visitation, screened anyone entering the prison, restricted work groups that leave the prison, suspended non-critical inmate transfers and volunteer activities, according to the department website.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections wrote in an email that they have no legal authority to release inmates before they complete their sentence. There are no suspected cases of coronavirus among inmates as of Thursday afternoon, the spokesperson said.

“The well-being of all who live, work and visit an FDC institution is of the utmost importance to FDC and many measures are in place to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19,” they said.

The department also said they are working with the Department of Health to monitor coronavirus, and if an inmate is developing symptoms “FDC will immediately engage with the county health department and the inmate will be placed in medical isolation.”

The number of elderly inmates in state prisons has been increasing over the past five years, according to the department’s latest annual report. As of June 2018, there were about 23,000 elderly inmates -- nearly a quarter of the total prison population. According to the Marshall Project, Florida leads the nation in aging prisoners.

A medical provider at Lowell Correctional Institution, the largest women’s prison in the state and one of the largest in the country, said his respirator mask is about a month old. The man, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said he worries for the inmates when the medical staff can’t get proper protective equipment. Though the inmates stay inside, people like him and the guards come in and out.

He said in the infirmary, there are maybe 10 isolation beds. A number of inmates they deal with are elderly, diabetic, HIV positive or undergoing dialysis. He said he was told he couldn’t order more necessary items like Lysol wipes and other disinfectants. Without gowns, or masks, or any change in how they’ve been allowed to operate, the man said he worries for health care providers like himself but also for the inmates.

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