Inmates contribute to rising coronavirus numbers, but without a judge’s order, they will remain incarcerated

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Posted July 27, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor | Photo by Bruce Ackerman

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to escalate around Marion County, local public health officials are concerned about one population that literally doesn’t have the freedom to flee when the virus pops up: inmates.

Mark Lander, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, told the County Commission last week that positive tests among inmates in local correctional facilities, along with those from church congregations and patients in long-term care facilities, are boosting the community’s coronavirus numbers.

The Marion County Jail offers one example.

On July 7, for instance, 44 inmates had tested positive. By July 22, the number stood at 209.

“Positives are up as we receive more test results,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Paul Bloom explained.

At the largest women’s prison in America, the Lowell Correctional Institution, one of three Florida Department of Corrections facilities in Marion County, 115 inmates have tested positive, compared to 54 negatives, as of last Wednesday, according to agency data.

The DOC is awaiting results of another 215 tests, and had placed another 836 inmates in medical quarantine because they had been in close contact with those who had tested positive.

At the Florida Women’s Reception Center, another DOC complex in Ocala, 11 inmates had tested positive, while 187 were pending results and 514 had been medically quarantined.

County and FDOC officials say inmates who test positive are isolated, monitored and treated accordingly.

Lander said his agency continually works with Sheriff’s Office and its medical contractor, Heart of Florida Health Center, on ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jail.

“The Sheriff’s Office has been a faithful partner in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 among jail staff and inmates,” he said.

But from a public safety standpoint, local and state authorities are not prepared to release any inmates because of the virus.

“Absolutely not,” Bloom said.

Bloom acknowledged that inmates’ families are concerned about their loved ones and the correctional staff works to keep them safe. But some inmates are also hoping to use COVID-19 as leverage to get out.

Whether to release anyone, Bloom added, would be decided by a judge, and if necessary, the Sheriff’s Office would comply.

State prison officials said release dates have been unaffected by the coronavirus crisis.

The department, a spokeswoman said, lacks the legal authority to release inmates prior to completion of their sentence. So, the agency ensures inmates serve their court- ordered sentence in accordance with the law.

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