President Donald Trump has declared Florida a major federal disaster, granting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administrative request to grease the rails in delivering federal aid under a massive COVID-19 relief package agreed to in the U.S. Senate early Wednesday.
Florida joins at least five other states that Trump has classified as major federal disasters. Also Wednesday, he declared Texas a major disaster after doing so for Louisiana on Tuesday. California and New York were declared disasters last week.
While Florida continues its fight against the spread of COVID-19, a national bipartisan coalition of criminal justice groups is calling on state officials to not overlook prisons and jails during the coronavirus pandemic after a state Department of Corrections employee tested positive for COVID-19.
The state’s DOC operates the nation’s third-largest state prison system, housing 95,000 inmates at more than 140 sites — including 43 prisons — and employs about 23,000 Floridians, including about 17,000 as corrections officers.
On Tuesday, an employee at the state Marion Correctional Institution’s Work Camp in Ocala tested positive for coronavirus, spurring Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to urge DeSantis to call a special session on prison safety.
“COVID-19 poses a grave threat to prisoners and corrections professionals,” FAMM Florida Director Greg Newburn wrote. “Minimizing that threat requires giving the Department of Corrections important tools they currently lack. Giving the department these tools requires legislative action, and legislative action requires a special session.”
Prisons can be locked down relatively easily, but inmates are communally penned up for days, weeks and months and then released into the general public from the state’s 67 county and dozens of metro city jails, warns the REFORM Alliance.
The coalition, which includes the American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Justice Action Network, National Urban League, R Street Institute and Right on Crime, issued a call to Florida officials Monday to adopt a five-point plan to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus within Florida’s jails and prisons under the acronym “SAFER”:
• Suspend jail for technical violations; suspend probation office visits and payment of fines;
• Adopt smart alternatives to incarceration and contact visitation;
• Free medical visits and treatment, hand sanitizer, soap and protective gear;
• Extra precautions for guards and staff;
• Release elderly and vulnerable to home confinement.
“People in prisons, jails, or under community supervision are more at risk of contracting and spreading the virus, given their age, underlying health conditions, and close contact to each other,” REFORM Chief Advocacy Officer Jessica Jackson said. “Protecting these individuals from coronavirus is not just a moral obligation, but necessary to preserve the health and safety of our communities.”
There have not been reports of widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation’s prisons, but the transitory, yet compressed, nature of jails make them viral swish buckets, criminal justice advocates said.
On Saturday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases at Rikers Island City Jail in New York City jumped from eight to 38 — 21 detainees, 12 jail employees and five correctional health workers.
New Jersey on Tuesday announced it will release up to 1,000 people from county jails — those jailed for probation violations, convicted in municipal courts or sentenced for low-level crimes in Superior Court — making it the first state to begin sending some inmates home to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
President Trump said Sunday he was considering issuing an executive order to free older, nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.