During this global pandemic, we must do all we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve. Unfortunately, Florida’s prisons and jails are poised to incubate and spread the virus. Fifty-four prisons already have positive cases, including 180 just discovered at Liberty Correctional Institution. Gov. Ron DeSantis can assist in slowing the spread by taking executive action to (1) remove prisoners who pose little threat to public safety, (2) encourage local authorities to do the same thing for people held pre-trial in county jails and (3) direct that all inmates and staff in correctional facilities be tested.
As the jail administrator for Hillsborough County, I learned that the best way to protect public safety was to prevent crime before it started. When we invested up front in programs in the jail system, it paid huge dividends once people re-entered the community. Similarly, with COVID-19, we have seen that early social distancing greatly reduces community infection rates. We need to apply this lesson to the latest hot spots for infection: correctional facilities. Due to crowded conditions, prisons and jails make it difficult to separate inmates who are at risk of infection, and to isolate those who have tested positive.
In order to prevent the cases in our prisons and jails from spreading like wildfire behind bars and out into the surrounding community, we need to know who has the virus. When testing was mandated at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, approximately 2,000 out of 2,400 inmates, and almost 200 staff, tested positive. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee just announced that every corrections officer and incarcerated person in his state will be tested. Florida should follow suit. The governor needs to ensure that correctional administrators can conduct universal testing. The staff, incarcerated people, and general public deserve no less.
Florida should also reduce the prison population, as other states have done. North Dakota granted early parole to 50 people and Ohio’s governor released 100 individuals who pose little threat to society. Attorney General William Barr has directed the Bureau of Prisons to make significant releases. I applaud these leaders for acting quickly to diminish the risk of transmission.
Finally, across the state, counties can greatly reduce the chance of an epidemic in local jails by removing people who pose no real public safety risk. About two thirds of the people in a typical jail are being held pre-trial, many because they cannot afford a few hundred dollars. Some local leaders have already significantly reduced their jail populations by removing people held for low bail amounts. They are not releasing people held for serious offenses, just those who would already be out on bond if they had the cash. The governor should encourage each county to follow suit.
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Since correctional facilities can accelerate the virus’s spread, we must conduct testing and reduce the number of people held in Florida’s prisons and jails. By taking action in these areas, real progress can be made toward flattening the infection curve.
Col. David Parrish (Ret.) served as jail director for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for 27 years. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.