JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers say steps need to be taken to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in state prisons.
At Baker Correctional Institution, inmate COVID-19 cases jumped from 20 to 561 in a week.
For months, state lawmakers say they’ve been calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis and the secretary of state to help grant a compassionate release of non-violent and immune-compromised offenders who lawmakers say are trapped as the coronavirus swarms through facilities like Baker Correctional.
“Our prison medical system was already experiencing some difficult challenges as it relates to medical services inside of our facilities,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa. “So just imagine what COVID is now doing.”
Kayla Kearse says her father, Jarriett, had about a month left on his 18-month sentence at Baker Correctional but is concerned about what he’s facing now.
“With that little bit of time he has left in there, I think it’s very important that everyone is following the rules and trying to help drop these numbers,” Kearse told News4Jax on Thursday.
She says her father has emphysema and is exposed to other inmates who tested positive.
On Thursday, the Florida Department of Corrections reported 14,271 inmates and 2,185 corrections workers had tested positive for COVID-19. According to the state Department of Corrections, there have been 75 COVID-19-related inmate deaths.
Keith Harris with the Florida Justice League, a group advocating for criminal defense, says the group is currently processing a rule that the group says the Department of Corrections is not using. It’s the restoration of forfeited gain time — a rule allowing institutions to process an inmate and give them back time gained through good behavior.
“Theoretically, the rule now is allowing inmates that may have lost, let’s say, up to four or 500 days of gain time that put them in a position to where their EOS (end of sentence) is within that same amount that if they got that gain time back, it will cause them to be immediately released,” Harris said.
Harris says this rule is a consistent pattern to help thin out prison populations and is more effective than going through court hearings.
“By using it, it’ll open up beds to afford the institutions to operate with their minimal staff that they’re having problems with and control the spread,” Harris said.
News4Jax asked Kearse whether that would be something her father may want to consider.
“He said that it’s been inmates that have been released due to the virus, so he did ask me to look into that,” Kearse said. “This is not just about my father that’s incarcerated. This is for all the inmates in there terrified for their life, their health and their safety.”
Harris says inmates would put in a request to use this rule on their sentence, and if it’s approved, it can take less than 30 days to be released.
The Florida Justice League is encouraging legislators to ask the Department of Corrections to engage prisons in using this rule.
News4Jax has asked the Department of Corrections whether anyone in the last five months has used this rule in the prions or whether it would be something that the department could get behind. On Thursday afternoon, a Department of Corrections spokesperson sent the following response:
“Release dates have not been affected by the ongoing health emergency. FDC does not have the legal authority to release inmates prior to completion of their sentence. FDC ensures inmates serve their court-ordered sentence in accordance with Florida law.
“Prior to an inmate’s release, FDC staff prepare a comprehensive release plan that helps the inmate successfully transition into their community.
“Given the current pandemic, it is critical that proper post-release medical services and housing options are established. Even under normal circumstances, it is not uncommon for staff to work months in advance of release to find appropriate housing for inmates (particularly elderly and medically needy inmates) and to ensure they have adequate health care upon release.”