Earlier this month, when relatively few cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in Florida, activists demanded that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle help empty the county's jails of as many people as possible. After first claiming she had no authority to do so, Rundle reversed course last week, pledging to develop a plan to release those accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
Despite those efforts, advocates on the ground say Miami-Dade jails appear unsanitary and unprepared for an outbreak — and are still filled with arrestees at high risk of contracting coronavirus. In a Twitter thread yesterday, only a few hours before the county announced that three correctional officers had tested positive for COVID-19, attorney Maya Ragsdale wrote that she'd visited the Metro West Detention Center on Monday and discovered a horror show.
"Not one of the guards I saw was wearing gloves or masks. I saw doctors, nurses, guards, and cops coming in and out of the jail freely, without additional screening measures in sight," tweeted Ragsdale, a former public defender who now works as a legal advocate. "Every single [incarcerated] person I spoke to yesterday has health problems, despite being randomly referred to me."
She concluded that a coronavirus outbreak inside one of the county's jails would be a "death sentence" for those awaiting trial.
"I've had multiple clients die in @MDCCorrections custody due to medical neglect during normal times," Ragsdale wrote. "Now, pretrial incarceration will be a death sentence, if/when the virus enters our jails, like it is throughout the country."
In a news release last night announcing the three officers had been diagnosed with COVID-19, Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR) spokesperson Juan Diasgranados wrote that the corrections department "is taking proactive steps… to mitigate any potential spread of the virus."
"MDCR has canceled inmate visitation and all other non-essential public access and is screening daily anyone (MDCR employees, medical staff, police officers) entering a facility," he wrote. "MDCR is screening all inmates at intake for COVID-19 and has also identified housing for new arrests and inmates who are being investigated for possible COVID-19 or test positive. MDCR has also implemented [an] enhanced cleaning and sanitation process within our facilities."
I entered the jail as I always do. I wasn’t asked any questions about if I had any symptoms. I wasn’t required to have my temperature taken. There were no screening procedures beyond what is normally required for professional visits. I had to bring my own protective gear. 2/— Maya Ragsdale (@maya_ragsdale) March 24, 2020
I’ve had multiple clients die in @MDCCorrections custody due to medical neglect during normal times. Now, pretrial incarceration will be a death sentence, if/when the virus enters our jails, like it is throughout the country (Rikers, Marion CI, Newport CF, Kinross CF, etc). 8/— Maya Ragsdale (@maya_ragsdale) March 24, 2020
Unlike in state prisons, the majority of people held in county jails have been charged with crimes but not yet convicted. A smaller fraction of the jail population is made up of convicted offenders serving terms of less than one year.
Ragsdale, who works with the advocacy group Dream Defenders, tells New Times that every arrested person she spoke with Monday expressed some concern about contracting coronavirus. Metro West has dorm-style housing, with up to 60 people sharing the same space.
"You can't really do any social distancing," Ragsdale notes. "If one person has something, you're not going to be able to avoid them."
Moreover, she describes nearly every arrestee she spoke with as "medically fragile." One elderly man has stomach cancer. Two others have asthma. One immunocompromised person has Crohn's disease.
"So for them, there was even more of a heightened concern, just because if they were to catch something, that could be something that's very, very serious," Ragsdale says.
The ppl I met are caged in dirty cells w/ 50-60 ppl, forced to share toilets, showers, sinks, laundry. Many stay in bed all day b/c of fear about who may be carrying the virus. There are five phones per cell - lifelines to loved outside, if they can afford it (many can't). 9/— Maya Ragsdale (@maya_ragsdale) March 24, 2020
Although Rundle has given her blessing to release all but those accused of the most serious offenses, her guidance apparently has not entirely caught up with the county's criminal court system. Although the jail population has been decreasing in recent days, Ragsdale says an arrestee's fate often depends on which judge sees the case.
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"Some judges are very sensitive to the situation. There are other courtrooms in which you have judges who traditionally have never been good on release," she says. "I think it just is really, really dependent on the courtroom."
As of Monday, more than 3,500 people sat in jails across Miami-Dade County, as pointed out by Melba Pearson, a progressive candidate running for Miami-Dade State Attorney. (F)empower, a creative collective advocating for social justice in South Florida, is raising money to bond out those who cannot afford to pay their own bail. A larger coalition of advocacy groups has started a petition demanding the end of pretrial detention amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ragsdale believes the current decarceration efforts put in place to address COVID-19 should continue even after the crisis.
"I feel like most of the people, the vast majority of people I meet [in jail] are there simply because they have needs that have not been met. If they had jobs, a stable source of income, and housing, it feels like these are generally people who would be fine," she says. "People are being released right now who should have never been locked up."