PRISON HOTLINE REPORTS DANGEROUS CONDITIONS INSIDE SOUTH FLORIDA JAILS
Despite official assurances that State and local officials are addressing dangerous conditions inside South Florida jails, the COVID-19 Hotline for Incarcerated People (CHIP) has documented detailed reports that contradict these claims. Prisoners describe an unsanitary and violent environment where medical neglect and crowded cells are rapidly fueling the spread of the novel coronavirus. Contradicting official reports that Broward County Main Jail is taking steps to protect prisoners and staff, Zavier Permenter says, “Nothing has changed….The rooms are very hot. We have no ventilation. [The cells] are not livable and not sanitized. There are feces all over the walls.” Speaking anonymously, one prisoner describes how those with serious pre-existing conditions are being neglected rather than released: “I have been diagnosed with Hep C. I am in pain and at very serious high risk for COVID-19. My life is in danger. I have no medical help. I am supposed to be under medication and they won’t give it to me. I can’t get any answers from anybody. I am scared. I don’t know where this is going.”
Founded on April 5, 2020 by a group of South Florida community organizers, CHIP has been providing information, resources, and referrals to prisoners calling from South Florida jails. Through conversations with prisoners and their families, hotline volunteers have documented stories of medical neglect, abuse, and retaliation against prisoners seeking medical care.
As of April 23rd, 95 incarcerated individuals have called the hotline, 83 of whom have called from Broward County Main Jail. Of these individuals, only 5 have been tested for COVID-19, although 31 report symptoms including fever, coughing, and trouble breathing. Callers report being punished for requesting tests, soap, and cleaning supplies. CHIP volunteers have independently confirmed that many callers are only in the jail because they are unable to post bonds of $100-600. As one anonymous caller put it: “There are a lot of innocent people who are trapped in here and can’t afford to be represented by the attorneys who could get their cases moving more quickly. Innocent people are sitting in jail and god forbid they should die in this box of concrete and steel without even being proven guilty.”
Social distancing is impossible in the jails. Reginald Granison says, “We can’t practice social distancing at all, and the fact that we’re not being tested is a recipe for disaster. We have to be around each other. There’s no way they can actually separate us, and we can’t practice the safety measures we could if we were out in the world. Even those of us who are sentenced, many of us just have a few months left. We could be isolating with our families.”
Without social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) is key to preventing the spread of the virus. However, Palm Beach County Main Jail has not yet issued masks to all prisoners; Granison says he was told it will be a couple more weeks before prisoners get masks. In Broward County Main Jail, prisoners were given masks on April 10th; according to Keith Knowles, Jesus Morales, John Pierce, and others, these masks were distributed in response to the “(de)CARcerate Broward County Mobile Protest” organized on that date by Chainless Change, a recovery community supporting those who are justice impacted through advocacy and support. Donte Simpson says, “If the people didn’t show up protesting, we would have never gotten masks.”
PPE is ineffective and can even transmit the virus when reused or used incorrectly. Since April 10th, hotline callers report that new masks are issued rarely. After using the same mask for 5 days, Permenter says, “My mask is very out of proportion now. It is all torn up.” Another caller says he was given a mask and a paper bag, and told to store the mask in the bag and reuse it for over a week. Unlike other callers, Danny Tough didn’t receive a mask until April 15th; he was told he would have to continuously reuse it.
Reusing masks isn’t the only way that South Florida’s jails are failing to follow appropriate PPE protocol. Over and over, hotline callers describe deputies moving between quarantined units and non-COVID units without changing PPE. On April 14th, Miguel Angel Tellez Paz said that he had been waiting for medical care for a broken bone for 8 days, and wasn’t being protected from COVID-19: “All the officers are covered up from head to toe, but they go into the coronavirus unit, go through that one door and into this unit without changing suits. We all need help here. My unit is really bad.” Knowles and Morales echo this description, and a caller who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation offers more details: “They aren’t changing their gloves. We have glass windows in the cells and we can see them going into the COVID quarantine cells in their suits and wearing gloves, and then they are supposed to take those things off before serving food to the people who are at risk. But some of them aren’t following procedure. Some [deputies] take it seriously but others think it is a joke. When I refused food from one deputy who didn’t change his gloves, he said ‘stop tripping’ because everyone’s going to get it. I’m scared. I’m really scared.”
Like the anonymous caller, family members are also calling to report that deputies aren’t removing PPE from quarantined units when entering cells that aren’t under quarantine for suspected COVID-19 exposure. Diamante Stoveall says that deputies serving and delivering food aren’t following protocol’s consistently. “I feel like I am left here to die, to be honest,” he told hotline organizer Ruddy Turnstone on April 12th. Like so many callers, Stoveall wants the public to know the truth about what is happening in the jail. “I wish they could watch these [security] cameras for 24 hours. I don’t want to die in here.”
The fear that callers report is exacerbated by the violent conditions within the jail, and prisoners report facing retaliation for seeking medical care, filing grievances, or calling CHIP. Tough reports that every time he has asked to see a nurse, he has faced retaliation. “We don’t want to get beat up for trying to get medical attention. Since I have been complaining, sometimes they don’t let me out for 2-3 days.” Such medical neglect puts prisoners, staff, and the wider community at significant risk. One caller was exposed to multiple fellow prisoners with COVID-19 and to an attorney who later tested positive, but has repeatedly been refused a test himself. Those who test positive are not receiving increased medical care, but are simply isolated. Meanwhile, Paul Rodriguez and Christopher Pinkney both report that they were in close contact with prisoners who were isolated as confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases, but they have not been tested; Pinkney, who is at higher risk of complications due to asthma, has had a fever, cough, and trouble breathing since March 27th.
For many callers, CHIP volunteers are the only people providing them with accurate information about health risks, CDC recommendations, and preventative measures. Nonetheless, Bronzavia McGriff told a hotline volunteer that he has faced retaliation for calling the hotline and on April 12th, Turnstone spoke with an anonymous caller who was at that time arguing with guards who were trying to prevent the caller from reaching out to CHIP, including by throwing objects at the caller.
Asmar West says, “I’m afraid of dying in here. My mother-in-law, she needs me. I usually take care of her. I have trouble breathing and a cough but the nurse says I can’t get tested. Everyone in here should be tested automatically. They are playing a guessing game, walking around taking people temperatures.”