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Charles Hobbs died of COVID-19 pneumonia while in Miami-Dade custody.
Charles Hobbs died of COVID-19 pneumonia while in Miami-Dade custody.
Family photo courtesy of Scott Hechinger

"We Might Be Next": After Miami Jail Death, Infected Inmates Live in Fear

As Charles Hobbs gasped for breath and lapsed into unconsciousness, his nose pouring with yellow-green mucus, he was not alone.

Inside a dormitory for quarantined inmates at Miami-Dade's Metro-West Detention Center just west of Doral, Hobbs' cellmates, who were themselves battling COVID-19 infections, begged the guards for help. They watched as a corrections officer paced the cell, poking Hobbs' bed with a walkie-talkie in a seeming attempt to revive him. After ten minutes, the inmates say, the guard alerted the jail's medical staff.

It was early on the morning of April 28. The inmates looked on as nurses performed CPR. An officer announced that Hobbs was "flatlining." Guards struggled to move the 51-year-old, whom a cellmate described as "a big man," onto a stretcher so he could be taken to the hospital.

"He was like dead weight," inmate Nathaniel Brown Jr. later recalled. "He really looked dead being taken out of our dorm."

Days later, Hobbs died of COVID-19 pneumonia.

Hobbs' death has traumatized the remainder of the jail's population as coronavirus continues to spread through the facility. Efrain Garcia now falls asleep clutching his Bible. Eric Benn can't sleep at all and says he has nightmares in which he relives what he witnessed that morning. Eduardo Marinho, who is 43, had never seen anyone die before.

All three men have tested positive for the virus that killed Hobbs.

"I was so upset after this happened," Marinho said. "We are all so sick in this dorm. This could have happened to any of us."

The inmates' stories come from more than a dozen transcribed statements filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit against Miami-Dade County and its corrections department. The class-action suit, backed by the muscle of advocacy groups and civil-rights attorneys, seeks the release of medically vulnerable inmates and basic protections such as hand sanitizer and disinfectants for those who must remain in jail.

The county's attorneys have argued that the inmates should have addressed their complaints internally instead of filing a federal lawsuit.

The inmates' statements, as documented by their lawyers, provide grim firsthand accounts of life inside Metro-West, which by some calculations is the largest jail in Florida. The statements make clear that Hobbs' death was a turning point on the inside, an indisputable example of the danger each of them faces from behind bars.

"We wake up and go to sleep with the thought that we might be next to go like Charles Hobbs," inmate Ofelito Lora said.

In a May 14 statement, Hobbs' bunkmate Marshall King said he began to feel sick in early April but wasn't tested for coronavirus until early May, after Hobbs was taken to the hospital. King, who has hypertension and congenital heart disease, tested positive for COVID-19.

Every day since April 19, King said, he has had a fever of 102 degrees or higher, which jailhouse nurses have brought down with Tylenol. He said that for two weeks he could not keep down any food. He grew delirious, unable to tell whether he was awake or asleep. On one occasion, he passed out in the shower.

King said his sickness has lingered into May. During a phone call with his attorney at the beginning of the month, he apparently became unconscious.

"I remember her saying to me, 'It seems as if it's hard for you to breathe.' When she said that, everything blacked out," he recalled in his statement. "I could hear voices around me saying over and over again, 'He's not responsive.'"

King said he was flown to the hospital, where he was intubated and diagnosed with pneumonia. He was later transferred to a medical unit at the county's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center near Miami International Airport.

As of May 14, King had yet to recover and said he was still experiencing extreme symptoms of the virus.

"I think I have brain damage. I can't see anymore. I can't identify faces or numbers. In order to identify things, I have to look down and to the left. Much of my memory is gone. I don't even remember my birthday," he told his attorney, according to the transcribed statement. "I think I used to speak Spanish, but I don't understand a word of it now. It's even hard for me to comprehend English. I have to ask questions over and over again to understand what someone has said to me. I'm having trouble knowing the difference between being awake and asleep. My mind isn't fully here."

Of the dozen-plus inmates who filed statements, King describes the most severe symptoms. Others recounted throwing up, losing their sense of taste, running a fever, and being too fatigued to get out of bed.

Inmates who have not fallen ill or who have not been tested said there is no reasonable way to protect themselves, given the close quarters.

"We are jammed in here like a bunch of sardines," Adriano Nese said. "It is like having dozens of people jammed into a small box. If someone walked into this dorm with COVID-19, we would all be done for."

Although the guards have instructed inmates to sleep head-to-toe, the men at Metro-West said they're still close enough that they can reach out and touch the bed on either side of them.

"Our bunks in this dorm are nicknamed I-95 because they are so close together, like a traffic jam on the highway," Nese said.

In recent weeks, some of the inmates who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit have bonded out or otherwise were released. But others remain, including Anthony Swain, a paraplegic 43-year-old who uses a wheelchair. Last month, Swain was hospitalized and diagnosed with COVID-19. A GoFundMe campaign started by the Miami-based civil-rights group Dream Defenders has raised about 80 percent of its $85,000 goal.

The inmates' lawsuit remains unresolved. Although a federal judge ruled in April that Metro-West must provide soap and disinfectants for the incarcerated, an appellate court overturned the judge's order, saying the ruling "hamstrings" the judgment of the local officials who run the corrections department.

As the court battle plays out, inmates say their lives are in jeopardy with each passing day.

"I'm not a rocket scientist, but it's clear that people are dying and others becoming sick, fast, while medical and [corrections] make error after error, playing with our lives," Ofelito Lora wrote in a letter made public by his sister. "Just because we are in orange and our uniform says inmate on the back, that doesn't make us less important. We also have families, parents, siblings, wives, and children. This is a low-level custody jail, many will beat their charges and others receive probation or sentences. Dying due to terrible decisions being made is a sad reality we are witnessing."

Editor's note: Some minor grammatical errors in the inmate statements used in this story have been corrected for clarity.

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