Records show 41 percent of Miami-Dade jail inmates have COVID-19
Miami-Dade appears to have tested far more inmates, about one-third of those incarcerated, than other penal institutions
By David Ovalle and Douglas Hanks
MIAMI — Nearly 500 Miami-Dade jail inmates — a whopping 41 percent of inmates tested — have contracted the novel coronavirus, newly released county records show.
The rate of infection dwarfs the rate of infection among the public in Miami-Dade, where state statistics show just over 11 percent of those tested for the coronavirus have tested positive.
Miami-Dade’s corrections department released the statistics Tuesday to county commissioners as part of a memo updating efforts to control the highly contagious virus throughout the system’s three jails. The total: 481 inmates of 1,166 inmates have tested positive, the memo said.
The head of the jail system’s medical services told commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting that 10 inmates have been hospitalized. One inmate, Charles Hobbs, has died of complications from the virus. Almost all with symptoms have been treated at the jail. No inmate tests are pending.
“If they have fevers, we take care of their fevers. If they have coughs, we take care of their coughs,” said Edith Wright, who works for the county-funded Jackson hospital system, which provides medical care for inmates. “The asymptomatic ones don’t receive treatment. But they are monitored numerous times throughout the day. They get temperature checks.”
With tight quarters and social distancing nearly impossible, inmates in jails and prisons across the United States have been particularly susceptible to the spread of the virus.
Miami-Dade appears to have tested far more inmates, about one-third of those incarcerated, than other penal institutions. So it’s difficult to compare whether county jails are doing worse than other lockups.
Throughout Florida prisons, for instance, more than 1,100 inmates have tested positive as of Tuesday afternoon for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus — a positive rate of 12%. Ten of those have died. But the 9,225 tests so far represent less than 10 percent of the nearly 95,000 inmates in the state system.
Dozens of people have also tested positive at South Florida federal immigration centers, and led to litigation over people being held in detention.
Advocates for Miami-Dade inmates are particularly concerned because the population in county jails ebbs and flows constantly — unlike most state prisons, where inmates serve longer sentences.
Before the pandemic, roughly 4,000 people were being held in Miami-Dade jails. Lawyers and judges have worked to get the number down to about 3,200 on any given day.
Still, the conditions at the Metro West Detention Center have led to a lawsuit filed by a group of community organizations: the Dream Defenders, Community Justice Project, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps, GST and DLA Piper.
The suit was filed on behalf of a group of “medically vulnerable” inmates seeking release from the jail. The newly released statistics show that Miami-Dade prosecutors and judges need to do more to “immediately reduce the number of people trapped in cages or more people will die from COVID-19,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We are in contact with dozens of people who are not ‘extremely violent offenders,’ as suggested, but are instead caged for non-violent offenses and even traffic cases, including four of our Plaintiffs,” the group said. “The tragic and preventable death of Charles Hobbs highlights the danger posed to our entire community by continuing to confine thousands of people in conditions in which social distancing is not possible.”
A Miami federal judge had initially ordered the corrections system to give soap, masks and cleaning supplies to inmates, which the jails said they were doing anyway. An appeal court put her order on hold, and the litigation is ongoing.
“It is important to emphasize that despite reports, MDCR has always provided bars of soap and a personal towel to inmates free of charge, and general population inmates are encouraged to shower daily,” Corrections Director Daniel Junior wrote in his memo to the county commission on Tuesday.
He stressed that the jail population has thinned so much that system is at 67 percent capacity. Jailers are only allowing four people max to sit at common-area tables that seat eight, and bunks have been rearranged in a zigzag formation to distances inmates from each other.
The jails have also installed kiosks inside dorms that allow for video calls to family members and friends.
Junior, speaking to commissioners on Tuesday, said capacity can’t go as low as some experts have suggested.
“I would definitely not recommend releasing thousands of felons to our streets, given these economic times,” Junior told county commissioners on Tuesday.
©2020 Miami Herald