TALLAHASSEE - Inside a sweltering prison in rural North Florida, the mass testing of hundreds of inmates began nearly two weeks ago on a Saturday, as corrections workers tried to sort and quarantine prisoners with symptoms of COVID-19.
At the time, many inmates came into close contact with each other at Columbia Correctional Institution. A few days later, the results rolled in: More than 400 prisoners had tested positive, the largest number of infections at any correctional facility in the state.
“They mixed positives with negatives. They mixed positives with people that did not have test results back. But you know, they had no other choice. They had nowhere else to put us,” William Jennings, an inmate at the prison who tested negative last week, told The News Service of Florida in an interview on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I am positive now,” Jennings added, pointing to a mild fever and body aches as recent symptoms.
As of Wednesday, 5,361 state inmates and corrections workers had tested positive for COVID-19, a deadly respiratory disease that has shown itself to be efficient at moving rapidly through prisons and jails. Also, 34 prisoners have died since April.
The surge of cases in Florida’s prison system has come as the state has morphed into a global hotspot for the virus. As more inmates and workers test positive, prisoners and criminal-justice reform advocates are pleading with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to do more to address the problem.
“The people are the loved ones of your constituents who are relying on you to protect them. They want leadership and are looking to you to provide it. I am begging for your help,” Denise Rock, executive director of the nonprofit inmate-advocacy group Florida Cares, wrote in a letter to the governor on Tuesday.
Rock wants DeSantis to grant the early release of certain inmates, particularly low-level nonviolent offenders and prisoners who have six months left in their sentences, to help address the spread of the virus in the system.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, agrees and has called on DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet to take such steps.
“The governor and the Cabinet absolutely have the authority to do this,” Brandes said in an interview Wednesday. “How bad do things actually have to get before they are actually going to act?”
Brandes said the inmates could be placed on house arrest, electronic monitoring or other type of community supervision when released.
But House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, said in an interview that he does not think it is an “acceptable approach” to let people out of prison because of the pandemic.
“The question is, how do I look at a constituent in the eye who is burying a family member because I advocated to let somebody out of prison who has a violent past or had no business being let out of prison just in the name of COVID-19,” Grant said.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the issue. But in early April, when the prison system had a total of 73 COVID-19 cases, the governor said releasing felons wouldn’t make the situation better.
“I don’t see how in a time of pandemic where people are on edge already (that) releasing felons into society would make a whole lot of sense. I think it makes everything we are doing with social distancing more difficult,” DeSantis told reporters.
The governor frowned upon decisions by other states that have granted the early release of certain prisoners and contended the individuals were “dangerous people.”
Since the governor made those comments, the number of cases in Florida’s prison system has exploded. The Florida Department of Corrections this month launched emergency plans at two prisons that had significant staffing shortages because of the pandemic.
The plans required workers at Dade Correctional Institution and Jefferson Correctional Institution to work 12-hour shifts up to six days a week to ensure “adequate staffing levels” were maintained.
Greg Newburn, the Florida executive director of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said releasing certain inmates would protect people and should be part of the state’s COVID-19 strategy.
“There are some number of people who can be released safely into the community, and we can protect them from COVID-19, we can slow the spread inside prisons, and we can slow down the spillover from prisons to the community by releasing them,” Newburn said. “There is some number, but zero cannot be the efficient number of releases.”
The goal would be to reduce overcrowding in prisons, which could reduce exposure to the virus, and to improve the working conditions of corrections employees, Brandes said.
At Columbia Correctional Institution, where the number of inmates who have tested positive increased to 574 on Wednesday, Jennings said corrections workers are thoroughly cleaning the facility and enforcing a mask requirement for inmates and staff.
Despite the preventive measures, he said inmates and workers are getting sick because not much else can be done now that the coronavirus is inside the prison and it is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing.
“What irritates me is that in other states, when this issue first arrives, they went and said, ‘OK, well, we’re going to release these inmates that have this amount of time left.’ … And Florida acts like we’re not going to do anything about it,” he said.
Jennings, 44, is serving a life sentence for an armed robbery because he was a repeat offender. He said he had a $300 a day cocaine addiction at the time he committed the crime in 1997.
“They called me the gentleman robber because I said please and thank you for the money. I told my victims I wasn’t there to hurt anyone … I was there for the money,” he said.
William Forrester, a Bay Correctional Facility inmate with a single lung, tested positive for COVID-19 after the Department of Corrections denied his request to be furloughed to home confinement. He is one of 240 inmates who have tested positive at the Panhandle facility, which is operated by The Geo Group, a private contractor.
Forrester, who is serving 15 years for a drug trafficking offense, has been grappling with severe body aches, headaches, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a loss of smell and taste, according to a July 13 email he shared with the News Service.
In the email, he said a doctor at the prison halted the distribution of common painkillers, like Tylenol and ibuprofen, because the medicine “masks a fever.”
The Department of Management Services, which oversees private prison contracts, and The Geo Group, did not immediately respond to questions about Forrester’s claim that the drugs were being denied to inmates with the virus.
“To me, that’s just plainly inhumane,” Forrester wrote.