SOUTH FLORIDA JAILS: MEDICAL NEGLECT AND DESPERATE CONDITIONS EXPOSE NEED FOR IMMEDIATE DECARCERATION
COVID-19 cases continue to increase daily and incarceration is causing the spread of this deadly virus to accelerate. Jails and prisons are particularly dangerous for three reasons: crowded spaces, poor sanitation, and high numbers of people who have pre-existing conditions that are correlated with poverty, such as asthma and high blood pressure. South Florida jails set a horrific example, and the medical neglect that prisoners report suggests that the official numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths inside vastly underestimates the problem. As a prisoner at Broward County Main Jail explained on April 23rd, “The sheriff gets on the news and says this and that, but he don’t come to the jails and he don’t talk to the inmates. When they say 14 people got it, that’s only the people who were tested because they got so sick they are spitting up blood.”
According to organizers with the COVID-19 Hotline for Incarcerated People (CHIP), incarcerated people from three Broward County jails have been calling to report appalling conditions, including severe medical neglect. On April 29th, Quenton Johnson reported from Broward County Main Jail that even though he couldn’t smell or taste his food and had started coughing up blood, his requests for medical attention have been ignored. This is a shockingly common theme; five separate callers have reported that prisoners who are coughing up blood are not treated or isolated. As one caller described, calling from Joseph V. Conte facility on May 1st, everyone is either infected or waiting to get infected: “We’re sitting ducks here, just waiting to get sick.”
Since it was started on April 5th, over 160 unique individuals have called the hotline, which is staffed by volunteers from 9 AM to 9 PM daily. The calls are primarily from Broward County Main Jail, Paul Rein Detention Facility, and Joseph V. Conte Facility. Out of 55 new intakes during the week of April 24th, 35 callers reported serious pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, including asthma, obesity, sleep apnea, heart conditions, and conditions that leave them immunocompromised. Meanwhile, at Paul Rein Detention Facility, doctor’s visits cost prisoners $17; on May 1st, one caller who asked to remain anonymous reported that she has had a fever for three weeks but she can’t afford to pay the fee to see a doctor.
When treatment is provided, it is woefully inadequate. According to organizer Josephine , prisoners with dangerously high blood pressure are told that their only option is to drink more water. “We have talked with several people who were waiting over a week to see a doctor for broken bones,” says CHIP organizer Wendy King, “and they’re only getting tylenol while they wait.” People with Hepatitis C report being denied necessary medication, and many describe being denied the opportunity to file grievances. Shamya Alford, who has asthma and is being held at Paul Rein Detention Facility for nonviolent charges with a $200 bond, reported on May 2nd that she had been told if she filed a grievance she would be even more restricted in her opportunities to leave her cell and place phone calls.
Phone calls are incredibly challenging to place, making it difficult or impossible for prisoners to connect with family or speak with their lawyers. Given that all three Broward County jails have been on lockdown for over a month, many people have just 30-90 minutes a day to place calls. Social distancing guidelines mean that half of the phones in Paul Rein Detention Facility and Joseph V. Conte Facility are taped off and unavailable, though callers who wished to remain anonymous said that the phones themselves aren’t cleaned between uses. As one caller from Joseph V. Conte put it on May 1st, “It’s painful, a lot of people can’t get in touch with their family because the schedule rotates and people won’t be able to get through [during the time they’re allowed to call]. We can’t tell our families when to expect our calls.”
At Broward County Main Jail, caller B. E. told CHIP volunteer Marq Mitchell on April 20th that it was the first time in 30 days that he had been allowed out of his cell in time to make a phone call. Phone calls are also extremely expensive; organizer Noam Brown says that CHIP is paying around $10-15 per call “because of private prison contractor Securus’s exorbitant fees and charges.”
Conditions inside the jails are deteriorating as more staff and prisoners get sick. On April 29th, Darrell Grace said that Broward County Main Jail had started serving spoiled milk and rotten food. Joseph V. Conte Facility has been reducing portions, according to Anthony Kolle, who said on May 2nd: “I’m unsure why, but they have been removing things off the menu, and reducing portions….There is juice, a little juice that comes with the meal. But then they stopped bringing in the juice, they never explained why. About a week ago, the dinner trays came through and they were extremely small. People refused to eat, because they were so small.” At Paul Rein Detention Facility, a caller who wished to remain anonymous said on May 3rd that hand-washing advice was impossible to follow because of a sewage issue, and the sinks are backed up. “It’s bad, it’s such a small space. With the limited resources you have here, it’s a breeding ground for things to go wrong. Everybody’s paranoid.”
Limited resources and crowded spaces make jails incredibly dangerous for prisoners, staff, and the surrounding communities. A caller from Joseph V. Conte Facility said he was issued one disposable surgical mask and told that a “mask expert” would provide instructions on how to safely reuse the mask for four weeks. At Broward County Main Jail, prisoners are being told that they will be punished if their disposable masks show wear and tear over time, according to a report from J. O. that is corroborated by other callers.
“With calls coming in from various Broward County facilities, it is now clear that the situation in broward county jails and detention centers is reckless and life threatening. It’s simply not possible to keep people from getting sick inside jails during a pandemic,” says CHIP organizer Ruddy Turnstone. “There’s only one solution that protects incarcerated people and our communities: we need to decarcerate now.”