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The pandemic hit Florida prisons hard. A bill would let some sick inmates out early

Despite 203 coronavirus-related inmate deaths, the Florida Department of Corrections did not grant any special releases tied to the pandemic last year.
Current requirements for medical release in Florida are reserved only for inmates who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, according to state statutes, even during the pandemic.
Current requirements for medical release in Florida are reserved only for inmates who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, according to state statutes, even during the pandemic. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Feb. 5

More than 200 inmates in Florida prisons have died of COVID-19. Despite this, the Florida Department of Corrections has not granted any special medical releases during the pandemic.

As the coronavirus began to rage through Florida, advocates for Florida’s incarcerated population questioned why the state’s prison system did not consider releasing more inmates in an attempt to temper the amount of virus spread. But based on state statutes, the Department of Corrections couldn’t.

“Even those that were supposed to get out in the next couple of years, we’ve turned a sentence that was a period of years into a death sentence,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “And I think we can do better.”

Brandes filed a bill that would support broader medical and elderly release directly from state prisons. The Florida Commission on Offender Review is the agency which currently grants conditional medical release and clemency.

Under Brandes’ proposed bill, the medical review system would expand beyond the current commission, which receives recommendations from the Department of Corrections. The bill has been referred to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, where it was received favorably among lawmakers this week. Brandes said the bill is modeled off the federal system, which would be familiar to Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who previously headed the Bureau of Prisons.

This broader system is an idea Brandes has supported for years, he said, as Florida’s prison system is increasingly burdened under the weight of its elderly population. The pandemic has only heightened its need, he said. So far, 203 inmates in Florida have died from complications related to the coronavirus, according to the Department of Corrections.

“There’s so many things that we can do in the criminal justice system that would reduce the cost of the system overall,” he said.

Current requirements for medical release in Florida are reserved only for inmates who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, according to state statutes. The Florida Commission on Offender Review is appointed by the governor and is a quasi-judicial body, holding about 36 hearings in a normal year for clemency and medical release, according to their website.

In 2020, the commission added even more hearings for conditional medical releases because of the pandemic, said communications director Angela Meredith. At least 32 inmates were granted medical release last year, but none were directly related to the pandemic.

Denise Rock, the executive director of Florida Cares, a nonprofit which advocates for inmates, said keeping sickly inmates in prison when the medical care there is substandard is cruel.

“These things are an act of grace and they cannot seem to grant grace,” she said.

Florida’s inefficient and costly medical release system calls into question the basic goals of incarceration, said Greg Newburn, the Florida state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Newburn said he believes bringing medical release under the direct authority of the Department of Corrections could help avoid preventable deaths.

“There’s just absolutely no reason that Secretary Inch should not have clear, unambiguous, unilateral authority to identify people whose incarceration is actually a net negative when responding to something like the coronavirus pandemic,” Newburn said.

He added that not having medical release from within the department was a detriment to the system as the pandemic spread. Other states and the federal system were able to better manage the spread of the virus because they could release targeted inmates efficiently, unlike Florida.

Brandes said inmates over 65 can’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, but if they were released, they may be able to apply for some federal aid instead of their care falling fully under the state.

In a year with a budget deficit, Newburn said he hopes criminal justice is “ground zero” for looking at what doesn’t work and reforming it.

“I don’t know if it will change attitudes or how people approach these issues but I’m certain it should,” he said.

The nonprofit research institute, Florida TaxWatch, estimates that for each month an elderly inmate is not in prison, the state could save $1,000, totaling to about $21 million when considering its entire senior population, according to a 2016 report.

Along with bringing medical and elderly release under the helm of the Department of Corrections, Brandes’ bill would expand medical release to include debilitating illnesses.

Amanda Thiedt, 53, poses for a photograph outside her home Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 in Pinellas County. Thiedt’s son has been incarcerated since 2018 and has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease with overlapping ulcerative colitis. She has spent over $500 gathering her son’s medical records.
Amanda Thiedt, 53, poses for a photograph outside her home Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 in Pinellas County. Thiedt’s son has been incarcerated since 2018 and has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease with overlapping ulcerative colitis. She has spent over $500 gathering her son’s medical records. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Amanda Thiedt, a Pinellas County resident, hopes if the bill passes it could lead to expansions that would help her son, who was diagnosed with Chron’s and Ulcerative Colitis while he was in jail, before being sent to prison. Thiedt declined to name her son out of fear he’d face retaliation within prison. Now 29, her son has spent most of his time in prison in medical wings or on emergency stays at the hospital. He has suffered from sepsis, pneumonia and unhealed anal fistulas, she said. He is currently serving a life sentence.

In May, she asked that her son be recommended for medical release but was denied. He has spent most of his incarceration at the Reception and Medical Center, she said. In October he contracted COVID-19 at the same time he was already battling other infections. He has since recovered from the coronavirus.

“If I had him out here we could try to get him in clinical trials, and you know nutritionists and all kinds of other things,” Thiedt, 53, said. “When you have a debilitating illness the rate of recidivism is extremely low and you’re extremely expensive to the system.”

In 2019, corrections officials waited too long to take him to the hospital when his fistulas formed, resulting in sepsis, she said. Many of the meals served within the facility inflame his colitis even more, so Thiedt spends hundreds of dollars each month to get him chicken and mackerel from the commissary system. She’s also paid to request nearly 3,000 pages of his medical records, and for trips to see him when visitation was still allowed.

“It’s the worry,” she said. “It’s the constant worry too. And not being able to do more for them when they’re suffering,” she said.

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