By Noreen Marcus and Dan Christensen, Florida.Bulldog.org
As feared, the COVID-19 virus now has invaded Broward’s jail system.
On Thursday, the Broward Sheriff’s Office disclosed that two inmates have tested positive for the deadly virus. No inmates in the Miami-Dade County Jail system have tested positive yet, according to a spokeswoman for Jackson Health System.
BSO identified the first infected person as a man who had been held at the North Broward Bureau, a medium-security facility in Pompano Beach that currently holds 1,200 men and women. The North Broward Bureau’s “primary mission” is to house “the mentally ill, medically infirm and special needs inmates,” according to BSO’s website.
That inmate’s test was confirmed as positive on Wednesday. The second inmate tested positive on Thursday. No other information about that person, whether the inmate is a man or a woman or what jail facility he or she was in, was immediately released.
The virus’s spread into the jail system comes as local defense lawyers are reporting that jailed clients are clamoring to get out.
“I get 100 calls a day from inmates. They feel trapped. They can’t get into court. The police are still arresting people – not as many, but arrests are happening every day – and God knows some of them are probably infected,” said Jim Lewis, an ex-prosecutor who is running to replace longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz.
Broward’s jail system invaded
According to BSO, when the first inmate was arrested in March, he “was medically screened and showed no signs of COVID-19.
“On March 31, during a routine screening, the inmate refused a medical test (not related to COVID-19) recommended by healthcare staff. As a result, he was transported to the hospital for evaluation and treatment. At the hospital, he was tested for COVID-19 and confirmed positive on April 1.”
BSO said jail officials were notified and the “housing units where he was been were placed in quarantine as a precaution. Medical staff will continue to monitor the inmates for any signs and symptoms of COVID-19.” Arrangements were also being made to decontaminate affected areas, BSO said.
Jail staff that had contact with the inmates are being “advised to self-isolate, self-monitor and contact the Department of Health for further instructions.” The arresting officer who works at an unnamed police department was also notified.
As of April 1, 271 BSO employees have either been self-monitoring or self-isolating due to potential exposure to the virus. And, 144 have concluded the suggested isolation days with no problems.
But 15 of the 271 tested positive and are isolated, said BSO Sgt. Donald Prichard.
None were jail employees.
Lawyers, courts scrambling
As Florida Bulldog reported Monday, public and private defense lawyers in Broward have been working with the courts, notably Chief Judge Jack Tuter, to reduce the number of imprisoned, nonviolent offenders in hopes of mitigating the impact of the pernicious virus in a closed environment.
“In the past few stressful weeks, I’ve noticed a true spirit of cooperation among the state attorney, private counsel and the public defender’s office, all working to put aside acrimony and advocacy in favor of finding ways to reduce the jail population,” Tuter said. He and his fellow judges are focused on “getting as many people out of custody as quickly as possible who do not pose a public safety risk.”
Satz, Broward’s chief prosecutor, has signed onto the program. “The entire criminal justice system in Broward County is working together to release people who do not pose a threat to society,” he said in a statement. “All prosecutors who are assigned to cases are reviewing requests for release and our office has agreed to release offenders who do not pose a threat to public safety and who have no other holds from law enforcement agencies or other jurisdictions.”
Everybody agrees speed is essential, especially in South Florida. It’s crucial in penal institutions, which have been called “petri dishes” for the fast-spreading virus that many experts compare to the 1918 flu pandemic that took more than 20 million lives.
The timing imperative for getting things done fast is complicated by limited testing. Inmate patients qualify for testing, which is conducted in hospitals, if they show symptoms of COVID-19 disease. That said, the fewer the tests, the fewer the good or bad results and the lower the number of people known to be infected or dead due to the coronavirus.
“Those in custody aren’t going to be afforded the same level of testing” as the general public, said Gordon Weekes, the executive public defender who is leading the early release charge for Public Defender Howard Finkelstein’s office.
Miami-Dade jails so far
Miami-Dade uses the Jackson Health System for jail health care and COVID-19 testing. Jackson, the county’s nonprofit public hospital network, has suffered from severe financial problems recently. Last year, faced with too few paying patients and too many uninsured, the network’s governing Public Health Trust laid off an undisclosed number of workers.
The number of Miami-Dade inmates who have been transported to Jackson for testing could not be determined. Asked this question in emails over several days, Juan Diasgranados, public affairs manager for the jail, did not respond.
Broward jails are serviced by a huge for-profit company, Wellpath, which has operations in penal and rehab facilities in 36 states across the U.S. and Australia, according to its website.
Before the first test came back positive, two inmates had tested negative, according to Wellpath spokeswoman Judy Lilley.
Broward’s Weekes, who is running to succeed Finkelstein, said he’s concerned about the testing failing to keep up with the outbreak. “If you’re in custody you’re at the mercy of the jail to take you to the hospital or get you tested,” he said. “We have to have a very clear policy for having folks tested.”