TALLAHASSEE — As the numbers of COVID-19 deaths and infections in prisons soar, workers, inmates and their loved ones continue to plead for help from the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday the Florida Department of Corrections, which is part of his administration, will continue to test and isolate symptomatic inmates. But he did not outline any other measures under consideration to prevent infections among inmates and staff members.
“They are going to continue going through the testing regime, but I think the main thing is just isolating the folks who are symptomatic and likely to be spreading it, and I know they’ve worked hard to do that,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference in Tallahassee.
As of Thursday, 14,271 state inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, a number that has skyrocketed since mid-July, when 2,591 prisoners had tested positive for the virus.
Prison deaths tied to the novel coronavirus have also soared by 165 percent since mid-July. The virus had killed 75 inmates and two corrections officers, Joseph Foster and Robert Rogers, as of Thursday.
Since the pandemic started in March, criminal-justice reform advocates and state lawmakers have warned that correctional facilities will be vectors in the pandemic because they are often crowded, with social distancing nearly impossible. The advocates have called, in part, for trimming the prison population by releasing certain non-violent offenders who are at risk of contracting the virus or prisoners who have a few months left in their sentences.
“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,” Greg Newburn, the Florida executive director of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a recent interview.
Democratic state lawmakers held a conference call Thursday to urge DeSantis and Corrections Secretary Mark Inch — who also recently tested positive for COVID-19 — to do more to protect prisoners and workers.
“People need to realize these are real people with real lives and that we are giving death sentences to people who would have been released. They are dying in our facilities,” state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said during the call.
But DeSantis has been reluctant to release inmates as a response to the pandemic, saying in April that he did not think the move “make a lot of sense.”
Outbreaks have occurred at prisons throughout the state, including in many rural areas where prisons are major employers.
During the past week, for example, the Department of Corrections has issued news releases about how it is dealing with large numbers of cases at five prisons. They are Lowell Correctional Institution, which had 992 inmate cases as of Thursday; Suwannee Correctional Institution, which had 806 inmate cases; Century Correctional Institution, which had 759 inmate cases; Taylor Correctional Institution, which had 613 inmate cases; and Baker Correctional Institution, which had 561 inmate cases.
At least 14 inmate deaths are tied to South Florida Reception Center in Miami, while eight have involved inmates at Dade Correctional Institution, according to Florida Department of Health numbers. In addition, 2,185 corrections workers have tested positive statewide, with the Department of Corrections saying Wednesday that 1,160 had been cleared to return to work.
The response to the pandemic in prisons is a stark contrast to efforts to halt the spread of the virus in other high-risk facilities, such as nursing homes.
As the virus threatened the state’s senior population, the governor quickly implemented policies to protect residents at long-term care facilities. DeSantis, for instance, has touted facilities where nursing-home residents can be moved if they test positive for COVID-19.