'They cough and it scares you': Miami-Dade COs fearful of COVID-19 spread

Officers are wearing masks and gloves, but have been cautioned to save them for longer periods as shortages loom

By David Ovalle
Miami Herald

MIAMI — For thousands of inmates in South Florida jails, and the officers tasked with guarding them, life in normal times is cramped, unclean and uncomfortable enough.

The coronavirus has added another level of dread and misery.

At Miami-Dade’s main booking jail, new arrestees get put into one of three isolation wings for at least 14 days, just in case they caught the coronavirus out on the streets. No inmates have tested positive — but only a couple have actually been tested.

Most figure it’s only a matter of time before the highly contagious virus spreads in the cramped quarters of Miami-Dade’s three jails.

James Griffith, 19, got after out of jail Friday after spending about three weeks in unit 3C1 at the MetroWest Detention Center. He said fear is what’s infected the unit, especially after one newer arrival complained of being sick, was sent to the medical ward and never returned. Two other inmates began coughing after that.

“Two officers told us, ‘Don’t believe what they’re telling ya’ll. The coronavirus is in here. Be safe. Wash your hands,’” said Griffith, who is now awaiting trial for an armed robbery charge while on house arrest. “It’s crazy in there right now.”

Officers are equally wary. They’re still wearing masks and gloves as they move inmates, but have been cautioned to save them for longer periods as shortages loom. Some have taken to fabricating their own masks, as the department on Friday mandated all officers and inmates must now wear face guards when they are around others.

Employees have their temperatures checked before every shift, and over 100 have been tested for COVID-19.

“Close contact is inevitable in the jail,” said Miami-Dade Corrections Director Daniel Junior. “What we have to do is control the prolonged close contact.”

So far, 15 officers and civilian employees have already contracted the illness and have been sent home to recover, the department revealed this week. Staffing levels, for now, are fine because officers who had been assigned to the now-closed courts have rotated into the jails.

Still, officers are frustrated.

“I’ve had my same mask for 13 days,” said one Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center officer who is stationed inside a dorm with inmates. “There is no six-feet between inmates. They cough and it scares you.”

The global pandemic has paralyzed the United States, and detention centers are among the most vulnerable populations because social distancing is so difficult. Local jails, in particular, are especially vulnerable because defendants cycle in and out most quicker than in prisons.

“Our jailed clients are presumed innocent and there is no social distancing. With so many highly vulnerable, God forbid there’s an outbreak in the jail because for those awaiting trial it could become a death sentence,” Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez told the Herald last month.

“The jail must have fewer inmates for maximum flexibility to isolate and quarantine infected individuals. Fewer inmates means better infection control and it’s much easier to cope with the jail staff shortages that are certain to come.”

Across the country, advocates for criminal-justice reform have implored authorities to lower jail populations.

Rikers Island, the notorious jail facility in New York City, has been the most high-profile pre-trial detention center hit by the outbreak. Over 200 employees, and over 200 inmates, have been diagnosed with the COVID-19. The complex has been so hard-hit that a justice-reform group, The REFORM Alliance, announced Friday it was sending about 100,000 masks to Rikers and other jails.

California’s prison system will be releasing over 3,500 inmates early to help minimize the spread of the virus.

In Miami-Dade, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges have succeeded in trimming the jail population by about 600 inmates since the pandemic kicked into high gear last month. On Friday, there were about 3,400 inmates in three Miami-Dade jails. Just a few weeks ago, the number was about 4,000.

Also on Friday, Miami-Dade’s the judge overseeing the head of the criminal division ordered 18 inmates freed because their jail sentences were nearly complete. The order was done in conjunction with the Public Defender’s Office and Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

“It’s unlikely that releasing the inmates … would undermine the safety of the community,” Circuit Judge Nushine Sayfie wrote in her order.

South Florida’s prison system has been equally as challenging. Statewide, 16 employees at Florida state prison have tested positive, according to the corrections statistics published this week. No inmates have contracted the illness — but it’s unclear how many have actually been tested.

Over at Dade Correctional Institution, a long-troubled state prison in South Miami-Dade, fearful inmates are scrounging for bleach and other cleaning supplies to keep their cells clean. Social distancing is hard on the inside. Inmates are only being allowed into the chow hall two to a table — but they still wait in a crowded line before they are let in.

“They line 100 up to get you there,” one inmate told the Miami Herald from prison. “It makes no damn sense.”

He said inmates are fearful of the corrections officers, food workers and medical staff that cycle in constantly from the outside world. “If someone comes down with it in here, they’re the ones who are going to bring the virus,” said the inmate, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from prison staff.

The Florida Department of Corrections has not reported any infections among staff at Dade Correctional.

Academics who study health policy and infrastructure aren’t buying that no inmates have the illness.

“Given the fact that an increasing number of people who work in corrections facilities throughout the state have tested positive for the illness over the last week, it seems likely that incarcerated people, too, have been exposed,” Jessica L. Adler, an assistant professor of health policy and history at Florida International University, told McClatchy News this week.

Observers say it’s only a matter of time before the virus shoots through the jails. In Broward County, the sheriff’s office announced this week that two inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

So far, in Miami-Dade, only two jail inmates from MetroWest have been tested. The reason: the Hialeah police officer who had booked them later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“During that time, we kept the unit at MetroWest in quarantine and on restricted movements,” Director Junior said. “They came back negative.”

As for corrections officers, their advocates say they are the unsung first-responders at risk of contracting the virus. Across the country, hundreds of jail officers have fallen ill and been forced to quarantine, putting more stress on their co-workers.

In Washington D.C., corrections officer say that soon, half the workforce will be unable to work because of positive tests. The officers’ union even took the unusual step of supporting a lawsuit filed by inmates over conditions behind bars.

The director of one Virginia corrections system likened the at-risk jail facilities to “cruise ships without the views or the amenities.”

“They are no different than hospitals when it comes to how many people they come into contact with,” said Andy Potter, the head of One Voice, a national corrections non-profit who also heads the Michigan Corrections Organization. “These are the front line staff in conditions that are extremely dangerous and life threatening.”

Another Miami-Dade corrections officer, based at TGK, said before the pandemic, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves were plentiful. Now, officers are required to use masks for at least seven days, and must write a report and turn in the used one to get another.

In the bustle of work, she lost her mask. So the officer went to Walmart, bought some cotton fabric and elastic bands and made six new masks she can use for the foreseeable future.

“We’re desperate,” said the Miami-Dade officer, who asked her name not be used because she wasn’t authorized to speak. “The county has a lot of money. They should be able to help us.”


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