Two inmates in Broward County have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. The two cases mark the first time inmates in county jails in South Florida have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
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The revelation comes as activist groups call on BSO to release all nonviolent inmates, and as officials have started to take on different approaches to lessen the local jail populations, to combat potential spread inside the facilities.
One of the inmates was arrested in March and screened for symptoms upon entering BSO's North Bureau, where he was housed, according to a statement from the office. The inmate showed no symptoms at the time.
Then on Tuesday, the inmate was sent to a local hospital for a medical test that was not related to COVID-19, says the statement, and he was administered a test for the coronavirus. The results came back positive on Wednesday.
“After being notified of the inmate’s status, the housing units where he has been were placed in quarantine as a precaution,” said a sheriff's office statement. “Medical staff will continue to monitor the inmates for any signs and symptoms of COVID-19.”
Details about the second inmate were not immediately available.
Broward has been at the center of the COVID-19 epidemic in Florida. As of Thursday morning, 1,346 of the state's 8,010 cases were in the county. Only Miami-Dade County has more cases, 2,248.
A letter to Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony was sent by a broad swath of civil rights groups earlier on Thursday, demanding the sheriff release all nonviolent inmates and take other measures to decrease the jail population. The letter was sent before the announcement was made.
“If we have a viral outbreak inside of the jail, whether it’s from a person who’s newly admitted who was arrested, or a from a visiting attorney or from a corrections officer, it’s going to be really really bad,” Marq Mitchell, executive director of Chainless Change, the main group behind the letter, told WLRN. “It’s going to spread extremely quickly, because people in jail cannot isolate.”
The groups urged BSO to follow the lead of medical professionals and law enforcement leaders, including U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who have urged jails and prisons to reduce their populations to reduce the risk of rapid spread inside the closed facilities.
“We have to be absolutely certain that we’re being proactive here, because if we’re pushed into a position where we’re reacting instead of being proactive, it’s going to result in a lot of people getting sick and possibly dying,” said Mitchell.
The sheriff's office has taken some steps to reduce the population in local jails since the state of emergency was declared. In an interview with WLRN last week, Tony estimated that arrests and bookings have shrunk by 60 percent.
On March 8, the Broward jail population was 3,505. By March 29, it had dropped by nearly 300 people, according to population snapshots provided by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
Tony said last week that he did not plan to release large amounts of inmates, because his facilities are not filled to capacity. Corrections staff and new inmates are screened for symptoms when they enter, he said.
“We’re not really so much concerned about the inmates that are already in custody having the virus, they would have already exhibited signs of it if they had it,” Tony told WLRN. “It’s more than likely to come into the jails through an employee or new arrestees.”
In neighboring Miami-Dade County, several Department of Corrections staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but as of yet no inmates have tested positive, according to the department. At least 12 officers in the statewide prison system have tested positive. And last week, four Broward Sheriff's Office deputies tested positive.
Some counties, like Hillsborough, Volusia and St. Johns, have released large numbers of inmates to reduce the likelihood that the coronavirus could take hold inside local jails.
“We’re not topped out where we don’t have enough space,” Tony said. “To release people is not a necessity based on what’s occurring in this community.”