The novel coronavirus’s impact on local and federal prisons has led many inmates to plea for compassionate release or house arrest, as cases continue to spread across Florida prisons.
Melba Pearson, former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deputy director of Florida and a candidate in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s race, shed light on ways the compassionate release program could be altered to better serve Florida’s prisoners during the pandemic and beyond.
“Prisons should have a more centralized process when it comes to compassionate release,” Pearson said. "“The system needs to be more understanding of immunocompromised people.”
Pearson also discussed why she believes a racial divide still exists in today’s prison system.
“People of color receive clemency at a lower rate than those who aren’t of color,” she said.
Pearson discussed how former member of the Trump 2016 campaign Roger Stone was granted clemency from the president, yet someone like Saferia Johnson, a woman of color, didn’t qualify for compassionate release after it was known she had underlying medical conditions.
Johnson was a nonviolent prisoner in Florida’s FCI Coleman Low low-security work camp. At 36 years old, she left behind two young sons after dying of complications related to COVID-19. She took her last breaths on a ventilator.
Clearing out the jails
While Pearson emphasized that prisoners who have committed dangerous crimes should be kept off the streets and in prison, she believes those incarcerated for nonviolent crimes should be given a fair chance at compassionate release.
She also didn’t shy away from sharing her thoughts on how some Miami-Dade County jails haven’t done a sufficient job in keeping inmates safe and healthy during the pandemic.
Pearson points to the Johnson case and argued that allowing nonviolent inmates to be granted house arrest would slow down the spread of coronavirus in local jails, since fewer people would be in them. Social distancing measures could therefore work more effectively.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Pearson’s opponent in the race, has been the incumbent since 1993.
"We’ve worked diligently with our public defender, department of corrections and our courts to release as many people as we could safely out of jails and into the community,” said Fernandez Rundle. “Some were house arrests, completed sentences or [release] with ankle bracelets. At the same time, we want to make [jails] a safer place for the other inmates, officers and staff who work there.”
According to the state attorney’s office, the local jail population was reduced by 20% from what it was pre-COVID. Seventy inmates were released with 60 days in jail and 806 others agreed to some form of conditional release. The office is looking into further bail reform options. Conditions of release for extraditions and arrest warrants have been reduced for many cases.
Keeping prisoners safe
In speaking with Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez, he discussed how he’s managing his clients as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the U.S. He currently represents an estimated 2,100 clients in Miami-Dade County who cannot afford a lawyer.
Michael Caruso, public defender of the Southern District of Florida, ignored requests from the Miami Times to be interviewed.
Miami-Dade Pre-Trial Detention Center, Miami-Dade Metro West Detention Center and Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center are the local jails in the county.
Charles Hobbs, who was a 51-year-old inmate at Metro West, succumbed to coronavirus pneumonia in May. After testing positive for the virus, he was isolated with others who contracted the same disease. Once it was evident his health was deteriorating, he was sent to a Miami hospital where he eventually died.
When asked about whether the county is doing an adequate job of enhancing sanitation efforts and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to inmates during the pandemic, Martinez said they were meeting standard criteria.
“Miami-Dade County has provided proper medical care for those who are symptomatic,” according to Martinez. “New inmates and those who demonstrate symptoms are isolated and carefully watched.”
Martinez mentioned that those requiring emergency medical care are driven to hospitals. Inmates are also required to change their face masks every three days, he added.
But following proper social distancing measures has been a challenging task, he said. Since jail cells are small, physically distancing oneself from others remains a difficult roadblock to overcome.
And, as Florida still remains one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots, he isn’t optimistic about jury or bench trials resuming anytime soon.
Long delays, faraway court dates
How inmates’ cases are being addressed during COVID-19 is a pressing issue.
“Cases before March have been delayed indefinitely,” Martinez said. The earliest time jury trials could resume to their usual schedules will most likely be May of 2021, he noted.
Daily jail population statistics released by the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department on Aug. 9 tally the in-facilities inmate population at 3,283 on August 5. The outside facilities inmate population was 1,403. The number of Black people arrested on affidavit information was 2,418; white people arrested on the same matter numbered 2,257.
As of August 4, an estimated 86,639 prisoners throughout the U.S. had contracted coronavirus, according to The Marshall Project. Florida alone has a recorded 9,180 total cases and 1,040 cases per 10,000 prisoners.
Martinez said he hasn’t personally witnessed any form of racial injustice surrounding case trials amid coronavirus. As the pandemic continues, it’s hard to tell when inmates will have their day in court.
“We gave the department of corrections 25 laptops and cameras, so inmates didn't have to be sent to the courthouse,” said Fernandez Rundle.
“Bench trials and hearings could resume on Zoom,” said Pearson, “[but] jury cases can’t effectively work [that way].”