Florida to resume visitation soon, despite highest monthly COVID-19 death toll among prisoners

©Orlando Sentinel

South Bay Correctional Facility in Florida. - HILDA M PEREZ/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — After Florida’s prison system in August reported the most deaths in one month from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, corrections Secretary Mark Inch announced Friday he is planning to soon reopen some institutions for visitation.

The agency plans to allow for modified visitation with “numerous safety measures” starting Oct. 2 “at institutions where it is safe and appropriate to do so,” Inch said Friday in a video shared on social media. Facilities have been closed to visitors for almost six months.

In an interview with the Florida Channel that aired Friday, Inch said the agency plans to make the visits “noncontact” and explained they have prepared plexiglass shields to go on visitor tables.

He also said children under 13 would not be allowed to visit. An FDC spokeswoman has said the agency is still working on a weeks-old request from the Orlando Sentinel for an interview with Inch.

Inch did not share which institutions this will include, but said in the Florida Channel interview it would be ones without significant outbreaks. Of the FDC’s almost 60 major institutions, only 14 have not had more than 100 inmates test positive.

“We understand how important in-person visitation is for maintaining family bonds, but also want to minimize the risk for our incarcerated population,” Inch said.

As of Friday, 117 prisoners have died after testing positive for the virus, the second-most of any state prison system, behind Texas, according to the Marshall Project. Three Florida corrections officers have died of the virus as well.

About 50 COVID-19 deaths among prisoners were reported in August, by far the most since the pandemic began. July had previously been seen the most reported inmate deaths, at 25.

The Florida Department of Corrections first suspended in-person visits in early March, which Inch called “one of our very first precautionary actions.” The agency has continued to extend that suspension, most recently through Sept. 14.

In Friday’s message, Inch touted the agency’s “mitigation and prevention efforts” which he said “protected more than 80% of the inmate population from contracting the virus,” — but it wasn’t clear how that number was confirmed when many inmates have not been tested.

Agency spokeswoman Kayla McLauglin said Friday that a majority of inmates have received at least one test, but did not provide an exact number.

As of Friday, 15,812 inmates have tested positive for the virus, while more than 63,000 tests have come back negative from inmates, according to the agency’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The agency has confirmed that the data on negative tests includes retests of the same person, so it’s still unclear how many total inmates have been tested. There were about 85,000 people in FDC custody in August.

More than 2,800 staff have tested positive, and three have died of the virus.

About 80% of both inmates and staff who had tested positive have since been medically cleared, per FDC.

Denise Rock, the executive director of Florida Cares, a charity that advocates for those incarcerated, praised the decision to begin finding smart ways to restart visitation. But she said making visits no-contact doesn’t make sense.

She noted the governor’s recent decision to allow visits at nursing homes permits certain visitors to have physical contact with residents.

“If they can get their visits back and they’re allowed to touch and hold hands and have a hug, … I would expect they should be allowed to do that (in the prison system),” Rock said. “They’re letting staff in everyday, and it’s crazy to think staff can touch the prisoners, but how can you say family can’t touch the prisoner?”

Rock said she is also worried about other restrictions that could later be announced, including limits on visiting hours or who can visit. She said visits from loved ones are “the most rehabilitating factor of any inmate’s life.”

Venessa Grullon, whose husband is incarcerated at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the prospect of getting to see him after months. After an early outbreak of cases, positive cases at Tomoka CI have not increased for months — but Grullon worries it’s because they stopped testing there.

“There’s just a lot of variables,” she said. “I hope to be able to see my husband soon, but I’ve learned the last couple years, anything they say you take it with a grain of salt, don’t get your expectations too high.”

“I just wish they allowed us as families to have a little bit more input,” Grullon said.

———

©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)