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Medical oversight prison agency stops visits amid coronavirus

It's unclear when surveyors will be able to make in-person visits to ensure medical care again.

Over the past five months the group that oversees standard medical care in Florida’s prison system has stopped all in-person visits because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Correctional Medical Authority canceled visits to five state prisons and has no immediate plans to return as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, said the agency’s director Jane Holmes-Cain.

“It’s not safe for us,” she said. “It’s not safe for the inmates for us to go in there.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s prisons have become hot beds of coronavirus spread. Nearly 10,000 state inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, and 60 have died. Another 2,000 prison staffers have contracted the virus and at least two have died.

But the Correctional Medical Authority, which operates under the Executive Office of the Governor, isn’t designed to monitor outbreaks of infectious disease, Holmes-Cain said.

“We’re not COVID experts,” she said.

The agency was born out of a 1970s lawsuit that highlighted how inmates weren’t getting adequate medical care. The organization was designed to ensure inmates are getting cost-effective healthcare at an acceptable standard.

Surveyors - or contracted health professionals - go into prisons, look through medical records and create a plan for correcting any deficiencies they find. Staff at the agency also track complaints from inmates, which Holmes-Cain said they’re still receiving. Since March, they’ve received 35 emails and letters, and eight phone calls.

To make up for not being able to go into prisons in person, Holmes-Cain said the group recently began developing a way to do surveys off-site by collecting and analyzing medical records.

The process is still being finalized, and was delayed when the agency moved its office into the Florida Department of Health building in Tallahassee. Holmes-Cain said the medical authority has done off-site work before so it wouldn’t be a totally new process.

“This off-site access to care audit at this point is the safest way to make sure the inmates are getting adequate care,” she said.

Surveyors usually do inspections at the Jefferson Correctional Institution, New River Correctional Institution, DeSoto Annex, Hardee Correctional Institution, and Martin Correctional Institution.

But some advocates for Florida inmates say the Correctional Medical Authority doesn’t do enough, even before the pandemic.

“When they make a complaint to the CMA, that goes nowhere. It falls on deaf ears,” said Denise Rock of Florida Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding incarcerated people in Florida. “I’ve never known anyone to be able to go to CMA to get their issues resolved.”

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott didn’t give the agency any funding whatsoever, said Roberto Potter, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida.

“Anything that can basically be left out of the budget, how much attention do you pay to it?” he said.

Potter said in theory, inmates should still be getting all the same health care services during the pandemic. But it’s likely a lot of those programs or appointments have been delayed.

The Correctional Medical Authority typically looks at staffing, mental health, clinics for chronic illness, clinics for periodic care and dental care services, among other care issues in prisons.

Holmes-Cain said the agency was created to monitor those baseline services, not mitigate a growing pandemic.

“We’re not looking at COVID,” she said.

When an inmate at a Florida prison presents to medical staff with coronavirus symptoms, they’re put in isolation and given a coronavirus test, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Staff then trace back who the inmate came into contact with to know who else should be tested.

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