We’re told members of the PDO and SAO may have been exposed, while selflessly conducting their duties. Updates as information becomes available.
In the meantime, here is the unedited version of the op-ed by Howard Finkelstein, Gordon Weekes, and Eric Balaban published in the Sun Sentinel earlier today.
The emphasis below is ours.
The Broward County Jail is A COVID Time Bomb. While citizens in Broward County hunker down and abide by federal and state guidelines to practice social distancing as the one viable means of containing the spread of COVID-19, thousands of fellow Broward residents do not have that option: those confined in and working at the Broward County Jail.
As of today, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has announced that two individuals who are in custody were diagnosed with COVID in the past two days. Those numbers threaten to rise rapidly. Our nation’s jails have become incubators for the virus. In Chicago, the Cook County Jail had two confirmed cases of COVID a week ago. By Sunday, 101 inmates and a dozen employees had been stricken. In New York, the nation’s epicenter for the COVID outbreak, the number of COVID infections rose from 1 to nearly 200 in twelve days.
Though Broward jail officials are taking measures to detect those with suspected COVID, and to isolate and treat them, they are battling very long odds that they will be able to prevent COVID from entering and then spreading throughout the Jail. Practices employed to stop the spread of the virus—maintaining a safe distance from other people, frequent hand washing, sanitizing all commonly use surfaces—are nearly impossible to implement. The Jail is also home to hundreds of men and women who are at heightened risk from COVID by reason of their age, and of their having other medical conditions (immunosuppressive conditions like HIV, pulmonary disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses) that render them particularly vulnerable to COVID infection. This is in addition to the hundreds of jailed men and women who suffer from serious mental illness that impairs their ability to attend to their own self-care, and renders them particularly vulnerable as well.
Once COVID is introduced at the Jail, the hundreds of guards and civilian staff who work there will also be at elevated risk. They then will become possible carriers to extend the spread of the virus to their home communities. There is no reason to believe that the spread of COVID inside the Jail will be contained there.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued COVID guidelines for correctional facilities that address prevention, detection, and treatment of the virus. These Guidelines, however, will be incredibly difficult to administer if the Jail and county as a whole are overrun with cases. For example, the Guidelines recommend isolation of all known and suspected COVID cases, which will overwhelm jail staff should there be multiple outbreaks. Likewise, the Guidelines require that jail staff be equipped with adequate personal protective equipment (PPEs), which are already scarce and will grow more so once the county and its hospitals must address an influx of confirmed COVID cases. Implementing the Guidelines will further strain the already stretched resources of the Broward Sheriff’s Office. A week ago, four Broward County Sheriff’s Office staff tested positive for COVID. 103 additional staff members were then forced into self-isolation. These disruptions in the available workforce will make it virtually impossible to manage an outbreak in the jail facilities.
Across the country, public officials have begun to take steps to reduce jail populations. In Broward, chief judge Jack Tuter issued two administrative orders releasing weekend and furlough-sentenced prisoners, and ordering expedited release hearings for pretrial detainees. As a result, the jail’s population has been cut by about 15%. Sheriff Gregory Tony has given instructions to his patrols to cite and release in lieu of arrests that have contributed to jail admissions being cut roughly in half.
Despite these efforts, the jail still holds some 3,400 men and women. It is still processing dozens of new bookings daily.
In the end, much more must be done now before COVID takes hold. First, the Sheriff must be given the authority to release prisoners who do not pose a high public safety risk. The Sheriff has this power under a standing administrative order in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster, and COVID poses a comparable, if not a greater, public health risk. Second, all prisoners being held on non-violent charges should be released. Third, vulnerable populations must be released to the furthest extent possible. Fourth, bail should be suspended for all new non-violent arrests—there is no reason that someone should be held in the jail by reason of their inability to pay. Finally, the jail must be stocked with sufficient PPEs for its staff to implement CDC Guidelines and to prevent the spread of COVID from the jail to other areas of the county.
The Broward County Jail represents a present threat to all citizens of the county. The jail must be depopulated to the furthest extent possible before tragedy strikes, and then spreads.