Advocates Demand Miami-Dade Empty Jails During COVID-19 Outbreak

Critics say Miami-Dade County isn't doing enough to protect inmates during the coronavirus outbreak.
Critics say Miami-Dade County isn't doing enough to protect inmates during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo By Eliot J. Schechter / Getty
Multiple civil rights organizations and one political candidate are calling on Miami-Dade County to do all it can in the coming days to empty its jail system of as many inmates as possible to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. In recent days, one employee of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office and one arrestee developed flu-like symptoms and took COVID-19 tests. The results of those tests are pending.

In an open letter issued this afternoon, 18 activist groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Dream Defenders, Community Justice Project, and New Florida Majority — demanded that county jail leaders:
  • release all bondable pretrial inmates immediately;
  • let out all convicted inmates with less than 60 days left in their sentences;
  • pause new bookings;
  • and stop holding detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after they would otherwise be released.
"During this pandemic, incarcerated people are at increased risk of exposure and death," the open letter states. "The unsanitary and dangerous living conditions in our jails make them a petri dish for viral infection, and neither the jails nor the county hospital [has] the capacity to handle such a large outbreak."

In an email today, Ed Griffith, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, told New Times that prosecutors have no control over who's arrested or released from jail. He did not respond to a follow-up email asking if prosecutors planned to ask local law enforcement agencies to modify their behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak. (State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has issued countywide memos to law enforcement in other situations.)

A spokesperson for Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR), Juan Diasgranados, said the decision to release inmates is mostly up to judges in the court system. Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady this past Friday suspended virtually all in-person court proceedings for jury trials, but inmates remain locked behind bars in close quarters with one another.

"We will continue to work with the 11th judicial circuit courts, state attorneys' officers, and the public defenders' offices to ensure that any defendants eligible for release or diversion are processed accordingly," Diasgranados said.

But critics believe Miami-Dade County isn't doing enough to protect inmates during the outbreak. Melba Pearson, the former ACLU attorney and prosecutor running against Rundle in the upcoming August primary election, issued a press release earlier this week demanding the county end the use of cash bail and let pretrial inmates out of jail. She also urged the county to suspend costs for phone calls inside the jail system, create a "rocket docket" to review anyone unable to exit the jail system owing to bail costs, and hire more medical personnel inside the jails.
"State Attorney Rundle should immediately place a moratorium on the use of cash bail in Miami-Dade," Pearson said last week. "Jails are notorious for the spread of disease to staff and incarcerated persons. To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, individuals who do not pose a danger to the community should be released on their own recognizance."

A spokesperson for the Miami Police Department could not confirm whether any arrests will be paused but said officers "have the ability to exercise discretion" regarding whether someone needs to go to jail. Spokesperson Kiara Delva said the department encourages people to file police reports for property-related crimes online or via the department's nonemergency phone line.

"At the same time, we would like to ensure our residents that we will continue to handle our duties and responsibilities as their public servant," Delva said via email. "Our department is robust and our officers will continue to respond to calls for service where there's a need for police presence, including ALL emergencies, disturbances, etc. Once again this is all in an effort to minimize as much contact as possible and to keep everyone safe."

The Miami-Dade and Miami Beach Police Departments did not immediately respond to messages from New Times.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.