Broward County Jail inmates who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 are reporting alarming conditions, according to the county Public Defender’s Office.
The issues were raised in a letter dated Friday to Sheriff Greg Tony from Public Defender Howard Finkelstein and his chief assistant, Gordon Weekes.
“We are in receipt of very disturbing information regarding the treatment of persons in the Broward County Jail who have been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Finkelstein and Weekes write.
Given that there is “uncontroverted medical opinion that jails are incubators for COVID-19 because of the inability to socially isolate and provide adequate opportunity for handwashing,” the pair are asking that Tony arrange for testing for every jail employee and inmate.
“Without testing, COVID-19 will quickly spread throughout the jail and your staff will become more fearful and less able to do their jobs,” the public defenders wrote.
They also asked that inmates who are diagnosed with the virus or are exhibiting symptoms be closely monitored by medical personnel “at least on an hourly basis.”
Inmates who are being represented by the Public Defender’s Office have reported that they are not being checked. The letter adds that two inmates in a “COVID-19 unit” at the jail were “spitting up blood” and that “requests for water and care were ignored.”
In order to receive medical attention, they wrote, one of the inmates blocked a cell window to prompt a guard to come to the unit. Meanwhile, others intentionally caused toilets to flood to attract attention.
When deputies entered the unit, guards were “physically and verbally aggressive and threatening.” One inmate reported that a guard pointed a Taser toward the chest of another inmate who has heart trouble, and a second guard allegedly pointed a Taser at a different inmate’s head.
Gerdy St. Louis, public information officer at the Sheriff’s Office, said via email that the agency follows guidelines from the Florida Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding inmate testing.
Inmates who test positive for the novel coronavirus are medically isolated, treated and monitored according to those guidelines; in addition, inmates who show “signs of acute symptoms” are transferred to a hospital.
As of Saturday morning, St. Louis said, 14 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Ten of them were in custody as of midday Sunday, two have been released, one is now negative, and one of them passed away in a hospital.
The jail population has been reduced due to coronavirus concerns. As of Saturday, there were 2,860 inmates, down from 3,591 on March 1.
Visitors and volunteers are currently banned from visiting jails, while staff and inmates are screened before entering the facilities. All new inmates are screened for coronavirus risk factors.
St. Louis said her agency has not received the Finkelstein-Weekes letter. “It appears media received the letter before we did, as I am not aware of anyone who has received it. We have heard of similar allegations from the Public Defender’s Office that were looked into and found to be completely without merit. We will review the allegations outlined in the letter and provide the Public Defender’s Office with a response,” St. Louis wrote.
The Finkelstein-Weekes letter was also copied to county commissioners, the chief judge and the county administrator.
Finkelstein, who is serving his fourth term as the county’s elected public defender, is not running for re-election, and is instead supporting Weekes as his replacement.