Now more than ever, conditional medical release is good for public health and safety, taxpayers and inmates. COVID – 19 has spread to county jails, state and federal prisons, and other detention facilities. Media reports indicate humanitarian, compassionate, elderly, and/or medical releases have been approved, under various emergency declarations and guidelines, by various government entities.
To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Florida should utilize its existing conditional medical release law to release certain non-violent, elderly, seriously ill and increasingly vulnerable inmates who pose no public safety threat. The Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Commission on Offender Review have the legal authority and inherent discretion to orchestrate such releases.
State law allows the commission to release a state inmate who is permanently incapacitated or terminally ill. A permanently incapacitated inmate is an inmate who has a condition caused by injury, disease, or illness, which to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, leaves the inmate permanently and irreversibly physically incapacitated so that the inmate does not constitute a danger to herself or himself or to others. A terminally ill inmate is an inmate who has a condition caused by injury, disease, or illness, which, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, renders the inmate terminally ill so that there can be no recovery and death is imminent, so that the inmate does not constitute a danger to herself or himself or others.
With 93,000 inmates at 57 major state prisons, there are close to 24,000 inmates over the age of 50. There are thousands of older inmates with chronic illnesses or severe age-related medical conditions who also pose the lowest security risk. Because of their advanced age, the cost of providing medical care to this group is very expensive compared to the general inmate population.
Hundreds of prisoners of all ages die annually of natural causes from diseases of the digestive system, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and diabetes, pneumonia, respiratory arrest, multi-system organ failure, kidney disease and infections. Other inmates die from cancer, heart failure, HIV and leukemia and other serious diseases. The potential spread of COVID 19 in Florida’s 144 correctional facilities only increases for these vulnerable inmates, who if infected would expose other inmates, correctional officers, medical staff, vendors and their families.
Since 1996, there have been 346 inmates approved for conditional medical release. The Department of Corrections doctors and medical staff have the power to diagnose the inmate and determine that an inmate is qualified for a conditional medical release. Corrections then makes an agency referral to the commission, which has the sole discretion to approve or deny any release. The commission referral must include a clinical report with the complete medical information justifying a release, and a verifiable release plan describing the medical care and attention needed.
Families of state inmates should contact the prison classification officer and medical director at each facility to get and provide the most updated health information. Families, prison reform advocates and community faith leaders should encourage the Department of Corrections and the commission to increase medical releases. Valuable information is available on the commission’s website: www.fcor.state.fl.us
Reggie Garcia is a Florida lawyer and the author of How to Leave Prison Early. He assists state inmates on clemency, parole, medical release and corrections matters.