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Advocates Urge Prison Population Reduction As Coronavirus Spreads Behind Bars

Leon County is among those trying to reduce the number of inmates in its detention facility in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Tom Flanigan
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

With COVID-19 cases now showing up in the Florida prison system, both inmates and correctional staff are at risk. A prominent Florida clemency attorney thinks there are ways to reduce the most vulnerable prison population quickly.

Leon County is among those trying to reduce the number of inmates in its detention facility in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Credit Tom Flanigan
The Florida Channel
Leon County is among those trying to reduce the number of inmates in its detention facility in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A prime example of an at-risk inmate, said Attorney Reggie Garcia, is a case he's handling now in West Florida. The prisoner is a 65-year old man whose probation was revoked for a minor violation and is now back in lockup.

"That's one case with one inmate with a bad heart who, if he catches this virus, on paper has all the vulnerabilities that it could be fatal," Garcia said.

He says minor, non-violent offenders, especially those with potentially life-threatening medical issues, should be released. And he pointed out it's not just Florida prisoners who are at risk from the novel coronavirus.

"Mainly correctional officers so far at 21 of our facilities have tested positive to potentially look at that on a case-by-case basis as a potential relief valve."

One relief valve, Garcia suggested in an op-ed for the Tampa Bay Times, is an existing mechanism.

"Under current law, Florida has something called 'conditional medical release.' And that's a good thing. It is fairly narrowly interpreted. The Department of Corrections Doctors would essentially say an inmate has to be either terminal, meaning they are anticipated to pass in the next 6 to 12 months, or (are) permanently incapacitated."

And if that release option is too narrow for the present circumstances, Garcia believed Governor DeSantis might be able to expand the pool of eligible inmates with a single pen stroke.

"Are there non-violent, particularly elderly and sick inmates who might be getting out in the next 6 to 12 months anyway? Do we let them out early? That would be more of a holistic, system-wide policy approach. Arguably I believe that could be done by executive order."

In the op-ed, Garcia cited Department of Corrections' numbers showing, out of the 93,000 inmates at the state's 57 large state prisons, nearly 24,000 are over the age of 50. Meanwhile, on any given day, there are around 50,000 inmates in the state's county jails. Garcia thought at least some of them may also be prime candidates for early release.

"Most of the people in jail haven't been convicted of anything! They've been arrested, so a probably cause determination has been made, but they haven't pled to anything and they haven't been found guilty in a trial."

In some counties, Garcia says, jail populations are already declining.

"Our sheriffs in consultation with our state attorneys have been releasing people early. That doesn't mean their case is over, that just means they aren't custodial in the jail waiting for their case to be heard, which of course now with COVID-19, the courts are open and the clerks offices are open and they're doing emergencies. But for the most part, jury trials have been suspended and the normal criminal procedings day in and day out aren't occuring. So these pending cases are going slower anyway," Garcia remarked.

On Monday of this week, April 13, a protest took place. It consisted of about a dozen vehicles slowly circling Tallahassee's Capitol Complex tooting their horns. The issue was again, early release for those in the state's lockups most vulnerable to the virus. Debra Bennett from the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls was among the protestors.

"There's no gloves, there are no masks, there's no social distancing. You can walk six feet apart, but if you sleep 18-inches apart from each other, it's a death sentence to people who were never even sent to death!" she exclaimed.

So far, there's been no word from the governor's office or Florida Department of Corrections on any plans to reduce the state prison population.

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