INMATES DESCRIBE DANGEROUS CONDITIONS IN SOUTH FLORIDA JAILS AMID PANDEMIC
As COVID-19 sweeps through South Florida, the most vulnerable people include those who are incarcerated in prisons and jails, where conditions are gruesome. In the Palm Beach County Main Jail on Gun Club Road, inmates describe being kept in crowded open rooms, unable to stay 6-feet apart. Allen Frees says that the administration has failed to inform inmates of any sort of plan regarding safety precautions against COVID-19. At the Broward County Jail infirmary, Akeme Frederick says he was exposed to a COVID-19 patient who later died. Frederick says he has not himself been tested, but that corrections officers told other inmates that Frederick, who was returned to the general population, had been exposed; such a decision not only risks spreading the virus within the jail, but risks Frederick’s safety.
These conditions are being documented by organizers who are coordinating with public defenders and other community organizations to provide support to those who are inside South Florida’s jails and prisons. Public health experts recommend decarceration, and a crucial component of this effort is the first-person reports from incarcerated people. The situation that inmates describe suggests that unless the majority of people are immediately released, a severe public health crisis is imminent.
According to the organizers, this was an avoidable crisis. Ruddy Turnstone, a hotline organizer, says, “The sheriffs and prosecutors will have blood on their hands. They’re putting inmates’ and corrections officers’ lives in danger and need to decarcerate now.”
In South Florida, organizers have established a free hotline for inmates to report on conditions and seek information, education, and support. Dozens of imprisoned people have called the hotline in its first week, with the number spreading by word-of-mouth within the facilities. Calls are increasing rapidly, with more people reaching out every day. The reports from inside are grim, with callers from some facilities reporting that they are not given soap or hand sanitizer, they are forced to share beds, and are unable to wash their hands regularly.
“People are scared,” reports organizer Nicole Morse. “They are risking their lives just to place calls, since they are not allowed to clean the phones. I’ve spoken with 3 men who report that if they make any effort to clean common areas, they are threatened with solitary confinement.”
Even though deputies and corrections officers are getting sick, inmates are routinely punished for attempting to follow federal instructions to use face coverings in circumstances when social distancing is not an option. At Broward County Jail, Leroy Filmore reports that staff are coughing around inmates and responding punitively, even violently, when inmates express concern. Meanwhile, since there has been no halt in arrests throughout South Florida, new inmates arrive daily with symptoms of COVID-19. At the Palm Beach County Main Jail, callers report that they were exposed to a deputy who has since died from the virus, but no official information is being provided to inmates regarding their risk or plans for their safety.
Community organizing has material impacts. Alex Berkman, a local volunteer with the COVID-19 Inmate Hotline, was answering calls the afternoon of April 10th. After a group of organizers demonstrated in their cars that afternoon outside Broward County Jail, Berkman says that four separate reports from inside suggested that inmates finally received protective face coverings as a direct result of the protest. However, these minor reforms do not address the larger issue: social distancing is simply impossible within prisons and jails, which puts all inmates and correctional staff at extreme risk. Berkman says, “We are learning that mass incarceration as a solution for social problems is not only cruel, expensive, and ineffective–it is a public health disaster.”
Many of the people calling the hotline are only incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay bonds of $100-500, which organizers say demonstrates the unequal impact of cash bail. Organizers are independently confirming the bail and bond amounts set for callers and are filing applications for bail support from the Freedom Fund, a South Florida Bail Fund. Additionally, many of the callers are in jail for nonviolent infractions, including minor probation violations. Given the danger posed by COVID-19, organizers share that incarcerated people calling the hotline realize that they may end up facing a death sentence for these minor infractions. The calls received from friends and family of incarcerated people have been desperate, as they fear their loved ones will die because of the conditions in South Florida’s prison system.