Since March, hundreds of nonviolent offenders released to control virus spread at Duval jail

Health department officials state no evidence of COVID-19 was found in the Duval County Jail, before a doctor who tested positive was exposed to inmates and staff.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 500 nonviolent offenders inside the Duval County Pretrial Detention Center have been released since mid-March to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading inside the jail, officials say.

Over the weekend, the jail reached 178 reported positive cases when 50 inmates who tested positive were released. At least some of those inmates were released as a part of an ongoing initiative to reduce the jail population, according to the State Attorneys Office.

In mid-March, Chief Assistant District Attorney L.E. Hutton sent out a memo providing strategies to safely reduce the jail population, including reviewing cases where a person in jail was offered a sentence shorter than a year.

“Every individual, business and public agency has a duty to help flatten the curve of this pandemic’s growth,” the memo stated. “Criminal justice agencies are no exception.”

Assistant state attorneys were instructed to determine if probationary sentences or if the time the incarcerated defendant already served while waiting for a trial was sentence enough.

The review was limited to nonviolent misdemeanor and felony offenses, records show. Notably, the case could not be resolved without hearing from the victim and did not apply to registered sex offenders.

As of June 23, just over 500 nonviolent offenders with low-level charges have been released from jail, according to figures released by the State Attorneys Office.

In a statement, the State Attorney said guidelines to review and resolve cases faster than required by law are still in place.

“Given how the virus has now impacted the Duval County jail and our community, we are working with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Regional Conflict Counsel, and private defense bar to expand our previous collective efforts. Prosecutors are re-reviewing all misdemeanor and certain non-violent felony cases to determine if expedited resolution is feasible, or alternatively, whether a release on recognizance is appropriate. These decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis with public health and safety paramount to these decisions,” the statement reads.

The Florida-Times Union reported that the State Attorney’s Office kept the inmate population down for a month, but that beginning in late April, the population began rising again.

On June 21, the Duval County jail reported its first confirmed cases of COVID-19. The Florida Department of Health and the regional incident management team went to all three jail sites in the area and tested more than 2,000 inmates. Incoming inmates were screened and tested as they arrived to the jail as well, according to the Duval County Health Department.

In a matter of days, the number of inmates testing positive at the Pretrial Detention Facility jumped from two to 178, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. A total of 70 employees went into quarantine and 19 tested positive for COVID-19.

Sheriff Mike Williams blames the outbreak on one jail house doctor who, he said, failed to follow protocol.

“We had done a great job up until, you know, we had one employee or contract employee not follow basic protocol and really started this whole chain,” Williams said. “They were, at some point, symptomatic and didn’t report that. It was one of the health care workers in the jail. They, obviously, have since been removed and are no longer an employee of the health care provider.”

The Duval County Health Department would not comment on the doctor, but a spokesperson said the department found “no evidence” the virus was spreading in the jail prior to the first report.

Incoming inmates are now screened and tested when they arrive to the jail, according to health officials. Before the outbreak, inmates were only tested if they failed the screening process.

The Duval County Department of Health said it is first identifying positive results first to make sure inmates testing positive are separated from those who tested negative. Jail medical staff is notifying inmates of their results, according to health officials, and the interim medical officer is providing letters explaining the virus and prevention methods.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.