Fla. starts releasing inmates from jail, state prisons go on lockdown

Officials ordered the release of non-violent and short-term inmates to combat the looming threat of COVID-19 in jails


By Matt Bruce
The News-Journal

ST. JOHNS, Fla. — Authorities in the 7th Judicial Circuit have started releasing non-violent inmates early as a preemptive measure to combat the looming threat of coronavirus in local jails.

Court Administrator Mark Weinberg said the 7th Circuit is working with the Public Defender's and State Attorneys offices to review inmate rosters and identify prisoners eligible for early release. The circuit covers Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties.

Jails around the country, including in Volusia County, are reducing prison populations to try and stem potential spread of COVID-19. (Photo/News-Journal via TNS)
Jails around the country, including in Volusia County, are reducing prison populations to try and stem potential spread of COVID-19. (Photo/News-Journal via TNS)

The reviews have already manifested in release orders for nonviolent and short-term inmates.

Chief Judge Raul Zambrano signed two emergency orders Thursday granting early release of 88 inmates being held at the Volusia County Branch Jail on a variety of misdemeanor and felony charges. One of the orders freed nine pre-trial suspects on their own recognizance. The other sprung 79 inmates with less than 30 days left on their respective sentences.

Circuit Judge Howard Maltz signed an order Wednesday granting 28 low-level, non-violent inmates with short sentences released from the St. Johns County jail.

"In an effort to help minimize the potential for exposure to the COVID-19 virus within the St. Johns County jail, the court, in conjunction with the State Attorney and Public Defender, is reviewing a list of individuals currently incarcerated on non-violent offenses," Weinberg stated in an email Friday. "Some are in a pretrial status and will be reviewed for potential release on their own recognizance or for a possible plea and non-jail sentence. Others are serving sentences that are within days of scheduled expiration."

More than 500 Floridians had confirmed COVID-19 cases through Friday.

Jails, prisons and detention centers across the country are grappling to keep COVID-19 off their yards. Experts have compared the confined living quarters behind bars to nursing homes and cruise ships.

Florida prisons have shut down non-critical outside visits, and stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails. And some agencies have stalled their arrests to keep the number of inmates at their county lockups down.

Sheriff's deputies in St. Johns, Volusia and Flagler counties have been outfitted with personal protective equipment. Dispatchers have also been screening 9-1-1 calls to prepare responding officers for exposure to a potential coronavirus patient.

Medical staff at the jails are also screening suspects for coronavirus during intake.

Zambrano furloughed all weekend sentences through April 6 in a circuit-wide order he issued Tuesday. Officials at the St. Johns County jail suspended its work-release program.

The sheriff's office there has also urged its deputies to forward charges for minor infractions to the State Attorneys Office as a way to reduce the number of arrests.

"We've taken all the steps to limit the number of people coming into the jail for very minor offenses," Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said. "Obviously if you have someone that's wanted for a very violent crime, that person's going to be processed."

Volusia County officials indefinitely suspended visits at Branch Jail and the Volusia County Correctional Facility on Tuesday, according to county spokesman Kevin Captain. Restrictions were placed on vendors.

No employees or prisoners had been quarantined he said Friday.

"The county is working cooperatively with its medical contractor (Centurion) as well as other medical and public health officials and are prepared in the event there is contact with someone affected by the virus," Captain stated.

In Flagler, jail administrators have identified two housing pods outside the facility's two medical wards where inmates can be quarantined. The jail has been closed off to all outside vendors and volunteers for days.

The circuit had not issued a judicial order to begin releasing inmates from that county's jail Friday. Flagler Sheriff Rick Staly said he would release inmates on a judge's order, and noted deputies always have discretion. But he said he had not given his officers any orders to pull back on arrests, and he took a hard stance against releasing any inmates early.

"Invariably, if you release them, now they're out in the community, they're likely going to commit another crime," Staly explained. "Then my deputies have to interact with them again, arrest them again, and bring them back into the jails. It's actually safer, in my opinion, for inmates to stay in jail."

Responses around the state

Hillsborough County is releasing 164 inmates from its two facilities which house about 2,700 inmates to help lower the possibility of the coronavirus spreading at the jail, according to news reports.

Florida has the third-largest prison system in the nation with about 94,000 inmates imprisoned in 143 correctional facilities. The Department of Corrections also employs over 24,000 employees entering the prisons every day.

There were no cases in any state prisons as of Friday.

Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach and the Putnam Correctional Institute in East Palatka, about seven miles outside of St. Johns County, are the only local penitentiaries.

The Department of Corrections started locking down state prisons March 11, suspending visitations through April 5. On Tuesday, the department adjusted reporting schedules for convicts on probation and parole, restricted inmate work-release crews, and suspended all volunteer programs statewide.

The agency also stopped accepting new prisoners.

The Department of Juvenile Justice issued an emergency order Friday suspending visitations at its facilities statewide until April 15. DJJ officials said they had no known or suspected coronavirus cases. Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Daytona Beach is the lone juvenile detention facility in the area.

Through Wednesday, there had been no confirmed cases among the more than 175,000 inmates serving time in the nation's 122 federal prisons. But employees at two institutions have tested presumptive positive for the novel strand, Federal Bureau of Prisons announced Wednesday.

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©2020 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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