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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Gov. Ron DeSantis ignores calls to release elderly people from Florida prisons, quarantines are no longer hampering California prison fire crews, and an update to our ongoing COVID-19 outbreak map.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. Over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Read Monday’s and Wednesday’s posts.

Since the pandemic started, more than 15,000 people in Florida prisons have tested positive for COVID-19—up by roughly 1,000 since Thursday, Aug. 13, when several state lawmakers urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to grant compassionate release to prisoners at high risk of complications or death from COVID-19.  

Florida is one of the few states that have taken no action to release people from custody. According to a database maintained by UCLA Law School’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, only three people have been granted “conditional medical release.” At a press conference last week, DeSantis said releasing people from prison wasn’t an option. 

“I think the main thing is just isolating the folks who are symptomatic and likely to be spreading it,” he said.

An Aug. 16 editorial in the Palm Beach Post noted that it’s been less than two months since the newspaper first called on DeSantis to do more to prevent outbreaks in prisons. At that point, there were only 1,600 cases of COVID-19.  

“To date, 76 inmates have died from the virus, including at least 14 who were eligible for parole,” the editorial says. “Unfortunately, the response from the man who can best address this crisis falls somewhere between a collective yawn and a ‘meh’ thrown in for good measure.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 1 in 4 people incarcerated in state prisons is 50 or older.

A recent Post article tells the story of 71-year-old Richard DeLisi, who has two years left on a 30-year sentence for smuggling marijuana. DeLisi is incarcerated at the South Bay Correctional Facility, where more than 346 people have tested positive for COVID-19.  

DeLisi is “the longest-serving non-violent marijuana smuggler in the nation,” the story says. In addition to his age, he has underlying health conditions that put him at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. “We’re worried he won’t make it,” his attorney told the newspaper.

In early July, a COVID-19 outbreak at the prison where California trains its inmate firefighters sidelined more than half of the crews who cut firelines and clear brush. “Any loss of the crews to a COVID-19 outbreak portends a major challenge to the state’s firefighting workforce as California’s blast furnace summer and fall fire season get underway,” the Sacramento Bee reported in July. This week, high temperatures combined with an unusual number of lightning strikes launched California into the new fire season. At least 31 mostly uncontrolled fires are spreading throughout the state. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson Aaron Francis said there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state’s Conservation Camp Program and no camps are under quarantine. But, the number of CDCR firefighters is down 236 from last year due to early and standard releases, Francis told The Appeal. Last year at this time, there were 1,895 incarcerated firefighters. Currently, there are 1,659.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been mapping out the locations of prisons and jails that have reported at least two new cases of COVID-19 to help readers visualize the ongoing threat COVID-19 poses for incarcerated people. Last week we noted that many of the facilities on our early maps continue to report more infections. That remains true this week, too. 

Red dots: New cases between July 26 and 29

Blue dots: New cases between July 30 and Aug. 2 

Yellow dots: New cases between Aug. 3 and 9

Turquoise dots: New cases between Aug. 10 and 16