Report: Many Fla. inmates who died of COVID-19 were eligible for parole

Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said "release dates have not been affected by the ongoing health emergency"


By Grace Toohey
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO — When Florida’s parole board reviewed his case last fall, it had been decades since Stephen “Steve” Maxwell last resembled the “bad boy” sentenced to prison for a crime spree in the 1970s, his longtime friend Nancy Watson said.

Maxwell was eligible for parole on robbery, battery and kidnapping charges. The state Commission on Offender Review decided not to grant it at the time, but indicated he would likely be released this December. Instead, Maxwell, 68, died in April from complications of COVID-19 at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell.

South Bay Correctional Facility in Florida.
South Bay Correctional Facility in Florida. (Photo/Hilda Perez of Orlando Sentinel via TNS)

“I just keep thinking, if only,” Watson said. “He wasn’t a threat to anybody.”

Maxwell’s death was among the first linked to the new coronavirus in the state’s vast prison system, but since then, the COVID-19 death toll has risen to 63 as the agency struggles to contain the virus. Of those, the Orlando Sentinel identified at least 13 cases in addition to Maxwell’s in which the inmate had been eligible for parole.

The Sentinel identified those inmates by obtaining through a public record request a list of those parole-eligible at the beginning of April and searching it for the names of inmates who local medical examiners had identified after dying from COVID-19.

There could be more. The Sentinel has not yet been able to confirm the names of 21 prisoners who have died of the covonavirus, many within the last two weeks.

Currently, there are almost 4,000 men and women eligible for parole serving time in Florida prisons. All have been behind bars at least since 1995, many for serious crimes like murder or rape.

The three-person commission granted release to about 2% of cases they heard, according to the board’s 2019 annual report.

Prison reform advocates argue many more could be safely released into supervision, noting the commissioners can order ankle monitors, among other requirements. It’s especially urgent during the pandemic, advocates say, since those eligible tend to be older, and therefore at higher risk from COVID-19.

Of the 14 parole-eligible men identified by the Sentinel who have died of COVID-19 complications in prison, the youngest was 59. The oldest was 84.

Reggie Garcia, an attorney who has written a book about Florida’s parole system, estimated it typically takes 10 years after someone becomes eligible for parole for the commission to grant supervised release.

“I wish the process went faster, especially because of the virus,” Garcia said. “They have the inherent discretion … to consider the medical component now.”

Commission spokeswoman Angela Meredith said the board “follows the statutes and upholds the terms of sentence in the most expeditious manner possible.” It has added new hearings to consider medical release for terminally ill or incapacitated inmates, she said — but records show those releases also are rarely granted.

The commission has not made any significant changes to increase releases — for parole or otherwise — in response to the pandemic. Neither has Gov. Ron DeSantis, who criminal justice reform proponents argue could issue furloughs or take other steps to decrease the prison population to minimize risk to both inmates and staff. He has consistently said he doesn’t think releasing prisoners will help the situation.

Last week the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections and his deputy tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting a prison overrun by the virus and, as of Friday, inmates or staff had tested positive at 57 prisons. More than 10,000 inmates and almost 2,000 staff have tested positive. The first two correctional officers died of complications from the virus this week, according to the agency.

In response to questions about parole from the Sentinel, FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady said “release dates have not been affected by the ongoing health emergency.”

She said agency staff members often work months in advance of an inmate’s release to prepare for their transition, which she said is especially critical “given the current pandemic.” She did not directly address parole, but directed those questions to the Florida Commission on Offender Review.

“We continue to press for (the state) to seek alternative pathways and to reduce the pressure on the department, which is currently being held together with spit and chewing gum,” said GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes of Tampa, who has advocated for years for reforms at the corrections agency.

He called the review commission, which considers both parole and compassionate medical release cases, “extremely restrictive” in its decision-making. Even before the pandemic, he had requested a state audit of the commission.

With the FDC in “crisis,” the review commission could be “the key to getting more people out,” said Keith Harris, director of the Florida Justice League, which represents prisoners under consideration for release.

“I think the opportunity is here and now for the commission to partner up with all its law enforcement agencies, and (make an) increase in parole supervision,” Harris said.

Karen Gates has attended at least five hearings before the commission in the last decade, pleading for her brother, Kayle Smith, to be allowed to go home from Wakulla Correctional Institution on parole.

She has always considered advocating for him a priority, but never more so than in the last few months, as coronavirus has spread through the facility near Tallahassee, where he’s serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and armed burglary. Smith was convicted of acting as an accomplice to his brother-in-law, who fatally stabbed Smith and Gates’ mother in Pensacola in 1986.

“Every time I see an email from him, I’m like, ‘Please don’t say you’re sick,’” Gates said. “I pray for him constantly.”

In the beginning of July, Wakulla CI had nine staff who tested positive with COVID-19, but no prisoners, according to FDC reports. As of this week, 75 staff and 220 prisoners have tested positive. At least two prisoners there have died of complications from the virus.

“I just am so angry that there are these inmates — not just my brother — who are parole eligible and could be allowed to come home and be safe and out of danger, and DeSantis refuses to discuss it,” Gates said. “They’re not just numbers, they are people, with people who love them and want them safe.”

Gates has written emails and letters to the governor and corrections leaders begging for help but has never gotten a response. She doesn’t want her brother to be the next person to die of COVID-19 who could have been released years ago on parole.

Unlike many cases in which a crime victim’s family testifies against release, Gates said her entire family has wanted Smith, now 52, released on parole. But in his last parole interview, her brother’s presumptive release date was set for 2027, records show.

“Every time, I ask (the commission) for mercy — mercy for Kayle because he was only 18 (at the time of the crime), mercy for my family so we can move forward,” Gates said. “And every time, they say no. … What happened to second chances, what happened to forgiveness?”

After the state Legislature effectively abolished parole in 1983, only some serious felony cases — like murders, rapes and some drug trafficking and kidnapping offenses — remained parole eligible through 1995. Florida is one of 16 states that have effectively abolished discretionary parole, according to the Prison Policy Institute.

Many other states provide frequent parole opportunities.

In recent years, Brandes has proposed legislation to give more options for compassionate release from prison, like for elderly inmates, especially as Florida’s prison population ages. Those bills haven’t gained momentum.

“It really is up the Legislature and, frankly, the governor to have some sort of grace,” Brandes said.

Almost all of the 14 men the Sentinel identified who died of COVID-19 while eligible for parole were convicted of violent crimes, most from the 1970s or ’80s. Eight were incarcerated on murder charges, five for sex crimes. Only Maxwell was behind bars on charges of kidnapping and battery.

Maxwell was described in a 1979 Miami Herald article as the “leader of a small band of petty thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes” who would “torment” people in Fort Lauderdale. He later escaped from the Broward County Jail while awaiting trial. By the time of his death, though, he was an old man with a pacemaker who kept to himself in prison, taking more to animals than people, Watson said.

He was known as “Cat Man,” she said, because he cared for the stray cats around the facility.

Rick Hughes, Watson’s brother and a longtime friend of Maxwell’s, said he never had much hope that Maxwell would get released early or be cared for properly. A few weeks before his death Maxwell had told him COVID-19 was “racing through the dorm.”

“He said his buddies were (sick), and the people weren’t doing nothing about it,” Hughes said. “As long as they can make money off of them, they’re going to keep them there as long as they could.”

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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