COVID-19 Poses a Serious Threat to Florida’s Prison Population
While most of the country is under strict lockdown orders, people who are already confined in the country’s jails and prisons have no way to escape COVID-19. The virus is hitting jails and prisons particularly hard. In the U.S., the largest concentration of the virus outside of hospitals is in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, with 276 detainees and 172 staff members who have tested positive for the virus. Jails and prisons are COVID-19 hotspots due to the close confinement of inmates, poor sanitation, and overcrowding.
Florida has more than 30,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 987 deaths as of April 24, 2020, according to the Weather Channel’s Coronavirus tool. In Orange County, there have been 1,286 positive cases and 29 deaths. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 144 inmates and 110 correction workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state.
Individual counties are taking measures to protect prisoners and staff, and some are releasing inmates from custody to await their trial. The virus, which has already caused four inmate deaths in Florida, is spreading like wildfire through the state’s prison system — the third-largest in the nation with 94,000 inmates, 23,000 workers, and 145 facilities.
Why are Florida Prisoners at a Higher Risk for COVID-19?
Prisoners, in general, are much more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than people in the general population for a number of reasons. In Florida in particular, “tough on crime” policies — which were popular 20-30 years ago — have resulted in decades-long prison sentences. An aging prison population makes it much more likely that the virus will spread and hit those with underlying health conditions the hardest.
For the first time in the history of America, the aging prison population has outpaced the number of prisoners 18-24 years old. The percentage of people who are 55 and older in prison has more than tripled from the year 2000 to 2016. Florida happens to have the highest percentage of aging prisoners, with 14% of the prison system population being 55 or older.
Senior citizens are more likely to contract COVID-19 and less likely to survive it. Older prisoners have an even higher risk of contracting the virus than the average 55+ person. They’re confined in places where there may be questionable sanitation standards and where they can’t practice social distancing. They’re more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, which makes it harder for them to survive the virus.
What health conditions do Florida’s prisoners suffer from?
Some of the most common health conditions of aging prisoners in Florida include:
- Limited mobility
- Mental health issues
Many prisoners of all ages have also been incarcerated due to a drug problem. People with substance abuse disorders are a particularly vulnerable population. Popular legal and illegal drugs — like marijuana, tobacco, cocaine, and meth — profoundly disrupt the functioning of the lungs and heart. Heavy users of these drugs are much more likely to require serious medical care if they contract COVID-19, and are less likely to survive.
What is Orange County Doing to Stop the Spread?
The State Attorney’s Office of the Ninth Circuit is taking measures to reduce the number of inmates in jails during the pandemic. The concern for the virus to spread has led to the release of 300 inmates from the Orange County Jail. Many are released from custody to await their trial at home.
State Attorney Aramis Ayala believes that the cramped quarters of jail could fuel a viral outbreak.
“The reality of it spreading quicker is extremely high. Ninety-five percent of people who are in the jail are coming back into our community, and if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail and those releases happen, guess what? We’re looking at our entire community being impacted.”
The State Attorney ensures that they are not freeing dangerous criminals. The people being released were jailed for offenses like driving with a suspended license, possessing marijuana, and prostitution.
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