If there were ever a metaphor for a neglected petri dish for the novel coronavirus, it’s Florida’s jails and prisons.

Unlike assisted living facilities, crowded beaches, nursing homes, police-brutality demonstrations and other known COVID-19 hotspots, the virus continues to spread behind bars with far less public fanfare or concern.

In a state that’s seeing a surge in coronavirus infections — 100,000 and counting, according to Florida Department of Health — the latest count of virus cases behind bars is also on the upswing.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, there are more than 1,600 cases in 13 “hotspot” facilities. Palm Beach County’s South Bay Correctional Facility stands out in particular. More than 215 inmates tested positive for the virus, as have 60 staff members, the highest for any prison in Florida.

The virus continues to spread in county jails, too. As of June, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office reported that 39 inmates at the West Detention Center in Belle Glade and one at the main jail near West Palm Beach had tested positive.

The numbers are small when compared to the general population, but we’re still talking about a vulnerable population confined to close quarters — many from impoverished backgrounds and having underlying health conditions.

Jail and prison officials have taken steps to better sanitize facilities, develop protocols for exposed inmates and staff, ease overcrowding and monitor outbreak. But it’s not enough.

“In terms of incarcerated individuals, especially at the outset, I think we were a little behind in taking necessary precautions,” said Carey Haughwout, Palm Beach County’s Public Defender. “There was a lot of fear from the clients. People are scared who can control their environment. Those who have no control over their environment, it’s even more frightening.”

For Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose priority has been on re-opening and Florida’s economy, addressing the virus hotspots seems more of an afterthought, particularly in county jails and state prisons. It shouldn’t take another devastating spike to force the governor to act. With the stroke of a pen, he can order the health and corrections departments to develop a plan to curb COVID-19 by reducing inmate overcrowding, particularly among elderly and non-violent offenders currently stuck behind bars.

State law gives the governor extraordinary power to deal with emergencies. In the current crisis, his executive orders, proclamations and rules have the effect of law. Granted, there is a lot on his plate, but the governor can’t overlook the impact on the state if the virus is allowed to fester and grow inside our prisons and jails.

Florida takes its lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mantra seriously. The state has third largest prison system in the nation: 97,000 inmates and another 167,000 offenders participating in community supervision programs. According to the Prison Policy Initiative think-tank, Florida locks up a higher percentage of its people than several industrial nations, including the United States.

Budget cuts, overcrowding and low pay for corrections officers have plagued prisons for years. In 2018, for example, then-Gov. Rick Scott approved a state budget that left prison funding $28 million short. That forced corrections officials to cut substance abuse and mental health services and eliminate re-entry and work-release programs.

Granted, many in the public feel that efforts to test for and fight the virus should be directed at more deserving communities impacted by the pandemic, like elderly confined in ALFs and nursing homes, low-income urban residents and rural farmworkers.

But Florida can’t allow the novel coronavirus to fester in any segment of society, especially those legally confined and all but forgotten. Close quarters, unsanitary conditions and inadequate health care hurt not only inmates but correctional officers, sheriff deputies and prison administrators who go back and forth between jails, prisons and the general population.

What spreads in prison doesn’t stay in prison.

To keep all of us safer from the virus, officials must expedite the parole process to allow the release of elderly and non-violent inmates who can be eligible for supervision. Numerous states are taking steps in this direction — albeit small steps, in most cases — and Florida should join them.

Many of these ideas aren’t new — just never implemented. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R.-St. Petersburg, introduced no less than 20 criminal justice reform bills during the last session of the Florida Legislature, including one creating a conditional medical release program. They all died in committee. More recently, the Reform Alliance, a national criminal justice reform group, sent the governor a plan that would reduce state prison population by incorporating new reforms, including suspending arrests for technical violations of supervision.

There isn’t any absence of strategies to deal with the virus in Florida’s jails and prisons. The problem is the lack of will. The state has the resources to address the problem. It’s up to the governor to make it happen.

(Source: The Palm Beach Post)