Miami Inmate Who Sued Over Jail Conditions Now Has COVID-19

Anthony Swain
Anthony Swain Photo courtesy of the Swain family
Anthony Swain, a 43-year-old Miami-Dade inmate who has publicly spoken out about insufficient protections in the county's jails amid the coronavirus pandemic, is now battling a case of COVID-19.

Swain, who was being held at the Metro West Detention Center, was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital on May 10 because he couldn't breathe. The next day, he tested positive for the viral disease.

Swain is one of several at-risk inmates who filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR) in early April for failing to respond to the threat of the virus at Metro West. He is paralyzed from the waist down and suffers from cystic myelomalacia, a softening of the spinal cord that causes chronic pain and respiratory issues.

Swain has been incarcerated for four years while awaiting trial on charges related to an alleged pill mill operation. While in custody, his health has worsened.

"He is in pain all day, every day," says his mother, Connie Swain. "Given the history of his medical care, I don't have confidence that he will receive proper treatment for this virus."

As part of the court case against MDCR, Swain provided a statement about what it's been like to contract COVID-19 while incarcerated.

"When I was told I had the virus, I felt like I had been stung with a sharp needle," Swain wrote in a declaration provided to New Times by lawyer Maya Ragsdale. "I am scared for my life due to all of my preexisting medical conditions."

Last month, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams denied to release Swain and his fellow plaintiffs but found that MDCR had shown "deliberate indifference" and failed to enforce social distancing. She ordered corrections officials to provide soap, masks, and cleaning supplies to inmates and to regularly update its testing numbers.

MDCR has since appealed her decision and will not be required to implement any of the judge's orders until its appeal is ruled upon.

Earlier this month, another Miami-Dade inmate, Charles Hobbs, died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Before his death, Hobbs was being held in a cell at Metro West for inmates with COVID-19. Ragsdale shared the statement of Efrain Garcia, Hobbs' cellmate.

"He was having problems breathing," Garcia wrote. "We went to tell the corporal that was on duty. He said 'That's not my problem' and walked away from the little glass hole in the door."

Garcia explained that it wasn't until Hobbs collapsed onto the floor that medical care was requested and CPR was performed.

"The day that happened, I went to sleep with tears in my eyes grabbing my bible," Garcia wrote. "We are all positive for COVID-19. All they tell us is 'If you get worse, we will transport you to the hospital.'"
click to enlarge Connie and Anthony Swain Sr. (left) attend a vigil for Charles Hobbs. - PHOTO BY ATENA SHERRY
Connie and Anthony Swain Sr. (left) attend a vigil for Charles Hobbs.
Photo by Atena Sherry
Connie Swain, Anthony Swain's mother, fears that Hobbs' fate will befall her son.

"Nobody should go to jail and it turns out to be a death sentence," she tells New Times.

As of May 4, over 300 inmates in Miami Dade County jails had tested positive for coronavirus, with 163 inmates of those cases at Metro West.

In its appeal, MDCR stated that it had implemented additional safety measures, including daily temperature screenings of all persons entering Metro West and tracking testing and identifying those who had close contacts with someone with the virus.

Among the accounts Ragsdale provided is a letter by Ofelito Lora, who is in custody at Metro West.

"Medical never takes the patient to quarantine the first time their temperature reads over 100 degrees," he wrote, "leaving them to get worse in the unit and further spread the virus unwillingly."

Lora wrote about one of his sick cellmates on May 12. "Now going on five days of his fever, he is stumbling when he walks," he said. The man has since received medical attention.

Over the course of the coronavirus crisis, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has taken steps to reduce the number of inmates within county jails. Advocates, meanwhile, say not enough has been done to release people from custody. There are 3,287 inmates currently incarcerated in Miami-Dade, down from the nearly 4,000 at the outbreak of the virus.

Florida is not the only state grappling with the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. According to the Marshall Project, over 25,000 prison inmates have tested positive nationwide, but the number of unreported cases is suspected to be much higher because of the lack of testing.

Swain's bond has been set at $650,000. Dream Defenders, an advocacy group that is part of the lawsuit against MDCR, has set up a GoFundMe campaign for Swain, with the goal of raising the initial $85,000 needed for his release and medical care. To date, donors have chipped in nearly $7,000.

Meanwhile, the future for Swain and the rest of the county's incarcerated population remains uncertain.

"As long as we are all bunched together, we are never going to get rid of this," Garcia wrote in his court declaration. "We go to sleep every night thinking, 'I don't know if tomorrow I'm going to be alive.' Everybody here is afraid."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Atena Sherry is a freelance civic and investigative reporter based in South Florida. She was born in Hong Kong and lived in Sweden and Washington, D.C., before moving to Miami in 2014.
Contact: Atena Sherry