Last year, as COVID began spreading throughout Florida and the rest of the nation, advocates in Miami-Dade pushed to have low-level offenders released from the county's jails, fearing an outbreak could amount to a death sentence for an unlucky few.
Many were surprised when prosecutors and judges heeded those warnings and help arrange for the release of hundreds of inmates. The county's jail population, which stood at 3,927 inmates on February 25, 2020, steadily declined through the spring and summer, dipping below 3,200 in late June.
But since that time, the jail population has been slowly creeping back up. This week, 4,000 people were in custody in Miami-Dade, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
That change has coincided with dozens of reported cases of the coronavirus among corrections officers and inmates this month. On February 1, 57-year-old correctional officer Juan Llanes died of COVID after a nearly 33-year career with Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation. At the time of his death, the county reported that 84 corrections employees were at home and 20 inmates were in isolation after recently testing positive for the virus. As of yesterday, 68 employees and 67 inmates were battling COVID, according to a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Corrections.
Maya Ragsdale, an attorney and advocate for incarcerated people and their families in Miami-Dade, believes the rising jail population is a contributing factor in the recent outbreak.
"Some days, the jail population is actually higher than it was before COVID," says Ragsdale. "Things are very crowded again."
Last year, Ragsdale and a team of lawyers from different civil-rights groups filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade Corrections, saying the county had not adequately prepared for or addressed the threat of the pandemic. Although the district court sided with the groups and ordered the county to take several measures to prevent the spread of COVID, an appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that while the virus clearly posed a threat to inmates, the corrections department was essentially doing the best it could to keep the situation under control. The civil-rights groups then voluntarily dismissed its case in September.
In a press release earlier this month, Miami-Dade Corrections said it "remains committed to implementing proactive measures to help protect the health and well-being of MDCR staff, medical personnel, and inmates in our custody." Those measures include enhanced cleaning procedures, a move to video visitation, and on-site testing for employees. As of July 2020, the corrections department has also been holding incoming arrestees for three days and testing them for COVID before mixing them in with the general population.
But jails remain an intrinsically difficult place for officers and inmates to practice social distancing.
"The problem you have in these jails — it's close contact," says Steadman Stahl, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, which represents the county's correctional officers and other area law enforcement.
Stahl says the death of Llanes, the longtime correctional officer who died earlier this month, has been troubling for his coworkers, most of whom don't have the option of working remotely.
"We are the ones out there facing the dragon that's COVID," Stahl says. "It's a very scary time."
Although more vaccines are becoming available in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has not clearly stated when jail populations will be prioritized, although he indicated this week that law-enforcement officers could be next in line.
Stahl says he hopes inmates and corrections officers alike will be able to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
"I want everybody to get this shot," he says.
Ragsdale, the attorney who works on behalf of inmates, says that while Florida has in many ways adopted a "business as usual" attitude at this stage of the pandemic, the virus remains a serious threat to those in jail.
"There are still people being sent to Jackson [hospital] who are very, very, very ill," she says.
The current threat is "pretty dire," Ragsdale adds, given the increasing number of inmates in custody,
"That's, for me, the biggest concern," she says. "I just don't think the system is built or equipped to handle this many people when we're in the middle of a very contagious pandemic."
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