Florida’s prison COVID-19 cases spark lawsuit from civil rights group

The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Florida Department of Corrections for records that better explain the way it is handling the spread of the disease in its facilities.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published May 15, 2020

For nearly the first month after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Florida, the Florida Department of Corrections was fairly tight-lipped about precautions it was taking in the prison system, where social distancing is nearly impossible.

And while the agency has expanded its website to provide information about things like mask distribution to inmates and staff, testing among the population and how many inmates are being quarantined, there is still little information that explains, for example, at what point the department would decide to hospitalize a sick inmate or details on how the department safely transfers inmates from facility to facility or dorm to dorm.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Florida Department of Corrections for records that better explain the way it is handling the spread of the disease in its facilities, which have 1,033 infected inmates and 231 infected staff, as of Friday morning. Nine inmates have died.

The suit was filed Thursday in Florida’s Second Circuit Court in Tallahassee.

In March, the group requested a broad swath of records, plans, policies, procedures, guidelines and documents relating to COVID-19, but has not received the records. It also requested specific information about hygiene supplies being provided to inmates, plans relating to staffing the facilities amid a public health crisis and how inmates are being charged for medical treatment during this time.

The group also requested policies and procedures for inmate intake, parole hearings and notification of families during the crisis.

The Miami Herald has requested much of the same information.

“The public has a right to know how FDC is handling COVID-19 in the prisons,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney with the (the Southern Poverty Law Center) in Florida. “FDC’s lack of transparency prevents the public from fully understanding the conditions inside Florida prisons during the pandemic and effectively advocating for improvements.”

The department did acknowledge the request, as it is compelled to do under Florida’s Chapter 119. It did not respond to requests for comment about the suit.

The Southern Poverty Law Center ’s suit comes as numbers of COVID-19 cases in prisons escalate. With more testing, numbers are rising, but it’s unclear how many inmates are being tested since the numbers the department publishes daily include retests.

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