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COVID-19 In Jails: One Broward Inmate's Experience With The Virus

Sun Sentinel
BSO has medical isolation units for inmates that test positive at the North Broward Bureau and the Main Jail.

Carlos Saddler shares what it was like for him to live with COVID-19 in jail over the summer.

Because COVID-19 is so highly contagious, prisons, jails and detention centers across the country are especially vulnerable to the virus' spread.

People are living so close together it's hard to get a safe social distance from others. The issue is affecting all types of detention facilities, from federal, down to state prisons and — even county jail systems.

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Staff and inmates in Florida have not been spared from the illness. Since the pandemic began, the Department of Corrections at the state level has counted more than 16,600 positive inmate cases.

In Broward County, the sheriff's office, which manages the county department of detention, reports that — to date — there are 127 inmates who have been sick and recovered in BSO detention facilities, as well as 163 staff members (four of those staff cases are current infections.)

As of Oct. 28, BSO reported that no inmates are currently positive. There has been one documented instance of a COVID-19 positive inmate death — it happened in April.

Over the Fourth of July weekend one inmate in a BSO facility in Pompano Beach, Carlos Saddler, started to feel sick.

WLRN followed Saddler as he navigated the virus.

'Oh man, I think I got the COVID'

Saddler has been at BSO's Joseph V. Conte Facility, waiting for his trial for nearly a year and a half.

"It basically came out of nowhere," he said.

Saddler says he began feeling symptoms of the virus about five days after an employee came to work at the jail looking like she was noticeably sick.

He reasoned, like many inmates, that since he was in jail before the pandemic ever reached South Florida, it had to have been brought into him somehow.

"I just woke up one morning and was unable to move out of my bed; all my muscles was tense, my stomach was knotted, I had a cough and I just didn't know what had happened to me," Saddler explained. "I lost my smell and taste and then I was like, 'Oh man I think I got the COVID."

Saddler says he was around other people for another ten days before he got a test.

"And I was telling my wife over the phone and stuff, like, I don't feel good. I'm sick and I don't know what's going on. Then one guy tested positive. Then two," he said. "Then they decided to test the whole unit."

Saddler is still in the Conte facility because he can’t pay bond — it's $55,000 in total. He could put down 10 percent through a bondsman, plus collateral. The collateral is his problem.

He’d have to come up with property that has $55,000 in equity. Plus, in this case, Saddler would have to show the court the money he got for his payment is legitimate — it's called a Nebbia requirement.

Saddler faces two felony cases with multiple charges of second and third degree felonies related to theft and ID theft. He has not been convicted.

The pandemic has been a setback when it comes to Saddler, and many other people's abilities to get court hearings and move their cases forward.

"It did slow it down. They're only gonna call you in and have your hearing by Zoom if it's, like, important dates. Just, you know, just sit more and wait," Melissa Lampkins said. She is Saddler's wife.

Because of the shutdowns, and having to figure out a new way to do jury selection, courts are facing big backlogs.

Lampkins talks to her husband every day. While he was sick with COVID-19, he had an hour a day to use the phone and to take a shower.

"I could hear that he wasn't, you know he just wasn't his normal self, he was more sounding down, sounding just weak, like depressed," she said. "They're depending on you to get them help and there's not so much that you can do."

Saddler says it's been frustrating.

"You don't really know how it is until you actually get it — but you don't know you got it until you actually get tested," he said.

The COVID's Nest

The Broward Sheriff's Office, BSO, which again, manages the county department of detention, stated their inmates are informed of their Coronavirus test results, and that their healthcare provider, Wellpath, educates inmates if they test positive.

Saddler said he wasn't directly told if he tested positive for the coronavirus. But he remembers being told to pack his things, and he says he was transported to North Broward Bureau, which is also in Pompano Beach.

"The place that we call the COVID's Nest," he said. "Once you get over there and you're locked in a room you just figure 'oh, I guess I got it.'"

BSO confirmed to WLRN that there are two possible places an inmate with COVID-19 can be sent for medical isolation including The North Broward Bureau, and also the main jail.

"They just wasn't prepared as far as sanitation wise," Saddler argued. "Nobody ever cleaned the showers."

BSO stated, "Inmates are expected to clean their living areas. They are also provided cleaning supplies to use before and after showering."

BSO said they cannot comment on an individual inmate's medical situation — like Saddler's — without a notarized HIPPA release. WLRN tried getting one, but the paperwork got lost somewhere between his attorney's office and BSO. Saddler says he never received it.

What BSO could expound upon in more detail, is some of the policies and procedures that are in place for any inmate if they come down with COVID-19.

"I just woke up one morning and was unable to move out of my bed; all my muscles was tense, my stomach was knotted, I had a cough and I just didn't know what had happened to me."
Carlos Saddler

Saddler raised other concerns about inmate care, he says the group was not given water — and when they asked for some, a nurse recommended the inmates drink out of the sink.

"The water's warm and it has rust coming from it — and the lady said 'Oh, it's minerals,'" Saddler laughed.

BSO also vehemently disputes the complaints that inmates lack access to drinking water.

During a press conference at the end of July — Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony addressed the water claims directly.

"The idea that inmates aren't getting water, that's absolutely false," Tony said. "We make sure we manage a department of detention that's focused on not just meeting standards, but also the basic human necessities."

Fears and feelings of isolation

Saddler said after recovery he’s afraid of getting sick again.

"It plays on your mind every now and then," Saddler said. "As far as not knowing if I could be re-infected or what's the long-term effects."

George Reres is Saddler’s lawyer.

"He's in there for a property crime, for a money crime. He actually has a bond," Reres argued. "This would be the perfect situation to let him come home, be under house arrest so there's someone there with the kids."

And he could go home — if he could pay the bond under the court's requirements.

Reres filed an emergency motion to try to get Saddler released because of his health. The motion was denied.

Reres said he's had a couple other clients with COVID-19 in jail in Broward and he's heard similar complaints.

"Everything is socially distanced, and all the medical treatment in the world, you know that's what we hear from the authorities, but it's the opposite of what we hear from our clients — when we're able to get through to them because our access is severely limited," Reres said.

Over the summer, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against Sheriff Tony. The lawsuit seeks to change conditions for inmates in Broward County jails to try to prevent the spread of the virus, and to allow people especially vulnerable to COVID-19 to be released.

It's one of more than 30 similar lawsuits the ACLU has filed across the country, because it's difficult to slow the spread of COVID-19 in any jail facility.

Those other ACLU lawsuits range from the county jail level, to state prison and federal detention centers, and lawsuits have been filed to date in states including Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas.

On his 12th day in jail at the North Broward Bureau, Saddler claims he was transferred out of the COVID-19 medical isolation unit for inmates, and sent back to general population. He also says he was not tested before going back.

In their statement provided to WLRN, BSO said its inmate healthcare provider, Wellpath determines when an inmate is "no longer positive" and cleared to go back to general population housing.

"I wouldn't want to be, you know, here today and gone tomorrow because of something that I didn't know if it would come back, or if the worst is over yet, or could I be reinfected — or could I infect someone else?" Saddler said. "So, you know, it is definitely a stressful situation."

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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