The Emergency in Florida Jails

Everyone is being ordered to practice social distancing. Except those who are being ordered into places where that’s impossible.

Barbed-wire in the foreground of a jail. A sign in the window reads, 'Help We Matter 2'
Jim Vondruska / Reuters

The Miami-Dade jail system is the eighth largest in the country. It typically houses 4,000 to 4,200 people as they await trial or serve sentences of less than a year. As of last week, 12 jail employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. An unknown number of prisoners are in quarantine, and some, including the rapper YNW Melly, have tested positive. Staff and prisoners are scared. Visitors are banned. Family members are finding it hard to get basic questions answered.

On an episode of The Atlantic’s new podcast, Social Distance, I discuss how the coronavirus is shifting policies in the criminal-justice system with my colleagues Katherine Wells and James Hamblin. Wells and I also speak with Maya Ragsdale, a former public defender who now works with the nonprofit groups Fem Power and Dream Defenders trying to post bail and secure release for pretrial defendants before they get COVID-19. She’s been inside the Miami-Dade jail system twice in the past two weeks, speaking with more than a dozen prisoners about their situation. What follows is a condensed, lightly edited version of those interviews.

Listen to the episode here:

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Conor Friedersdorf: Can you describe Miami’s jails and explain when you realized that the coronavirus would be a problem there?

Maya Ragsdale: I realized this was serious when we were given the stay-in-place order. Suddenly people were saying you need to stay six feet away from each other. Inside of jails, people have almost no distance.

One jail in just absolutely deplorable conditions is called Pretrial Detention Center. It's a very old jail. You walk in and everything feels sticky. It’s loud. It is just honestly disgusting. I used to hate to go in there when I was a public defender. Cells are just kind of jam-packed with people, like very small cells that are full of maybe eight to 10 people. More recently, I’ve been talking to people at another jail, called Metrowest Detention Center, which has bigger, kind of dorm-style cells that are also jam-packed with people. There are usually 60 to 70 to 80 people living in one cell. Very crowded spaces where there’s dorm beds lined up against the walls, usually two feet away from each other. And in the middle, a common area.

People are constantly having to interact very closely with other people. You have two TVs that everybody shares. You have five or six phones that are being used by 60 people. You have one water cooler, one tiny water cooler where, you know, you have to press a button to get water out. And people put their little water bottles right up to the spigot where their mouths have touched. You have shared sinks. I’ve heard that about half of the sinks are broken. And that the sinks themselves are just very dirty, with standing water and pieces of soap that are just caked all over. A lot of people have told me that they don’t feel comfortable using the sinks, because they're so dirty.

Katherine Wells: What happens in these jails just during a normal flu season?

Ragsdale: I’ve talked to people about all kinds of different illnesses. With flu, people go down, talk to the nurse. The nurse gives them a cold pack. And they return right back into the general population. In cells where somebody ends up with the flu, it spreads to half the cell. I’ve talked to people about scabies. People say when somebody has scabies, it'll spread to 10 people in the cell. Pink eye: half the people in the cell. So it seems like no matter what infectious disease enters the cell, it spreads.

Wells: Can prisoners get tested easily for the coronavirus?

Ragsdale: People have been telling me they go down, they talk to the nurse, they request to get a test. And one person was told, We don’t have tests available. Another person was told, You don’t have a fever. Every person that I spoke to has told me that they have not been able to get tested. These are people, some of whom have dry coughs, some of whom have other symptoms, yet they can’t get tested.

[Note: On Sunday, a Metrowest prisoner, Anthony Swain, joined a lawsuit with seven other prisoners claiming that their health and safety are threatened by remaining at the facility. He published an account of his experience in The Appeal. It said, in part, “There are already people in Metrowest who have coronavirus. The cell right next to mine, 1D4, is quarantined. Officers who work in my cell, 1D2, go over to 1D4 and come back in here. After we hounded them, they told us that one inmate in there has coronavirus, and all the people around him got sick and are quarantined. 1D4 has about 60 people in it, and the last I heard, 22-25 people of them are currently sick.” I reached out to the jail to confirm or refute those claims. At the time of publication, it hadn’t gotten back to me. In its coverage of the matter, the Miami Herald reported, “The Miami-Dade corrections department said Monday that the agency could not comment on a pending lawsuit.”]

Wells: What kind of cleaning products do prisoners have?

Ragsdale: In Metrowest specifically, they have what people inside call state soap. The way it’s been described to me is very, very small bars of soap that kind of resemble what you might see at a hotel. They are not antibacterial. People generally don’t even feel like they clean well; they just use it for their bodies. So people who have a little bit of money to put into commissary try to buy soap that’s antibacterial. Obviously, a lot of people can’t afford that. So a lot of people rely on the state soap. And they’re supposed to have detergent, but you know, on the inside, some people are saying they’ve run out of detergent. So people are crushing up state soap and trying to wash their clothes with that or are having to buy shampoo and dumping shampoo into the laundry.

People inside of the jail want to take care of themselves. They want to be clean. They want to be able to do simple things like have haircuts, like being able to wash their own clothes, you know. Corrections does not hire anybody to clean the inside of cells. That is entirely the responsibility of people who are called trustees, people who are locked up inside of the jail. They are not paid to do this. They do it because they've been assigned as trustees and because they want to keep themselves and the area that they live in clean. In terms of whether or not they can actually do that, I’ve spoken to many trustees at this point and what I hear from every single person is that no matter how much they try, they never feel like they’re able to actually sanitize anything, because they don’t have access to bleach. The soap that they’re given or the detergent that they’re given is so watered down that it actually doesn’t feel like it sanitizes anything.

Friedersdorf: What’s the prisoners’ level of information about the coronavirus and the public-health advice for what to do about it?

Ragsdale: A really wild thing happened last week. We bonded somebody out of Pretrial Detention Center. And we always make sure that we pick people up and give them rides. Our volunteers showed up with gloves and masks. And the person who got bonded out was so surprised. He had been locked up for a few months. And he was just like, What is this? Why are you showing up with gloves and masks? They told him about the coronavirus, and he had never even heard of it before. There’s people where they’ve literally never even heard about this outbreak.

In Metrowest, there’s two TVs in a little common area. And people turn them on to the news to just try to get any information they can. As far as announcements from corrections, people are saying there have been no announcements, no information given about how people can protect themselves. Somebody told me that he talked about what he had heard about social distancing on the news. A guard told him social distancing doesn’t apply to people who are in jail. So I think that the lack of information and the kind of messaging that people are getting from guards is just terrifying for people, because they’re hearing on the news about what they should do to protect themselves from the coronavirus. But in terms of what they’re actually able to do, those things just don’t match up.

People literally just say they’re terrified, just straight up: ‘Corrections is doing nothing to protect us. I think that if this enters my cell, I’m going to die.’ A lot of the people who I’ve talked to have said that the guards and nurses are scared, too. Nobody wants to go into the jail and end up taking home something to their families.

Friedersdorf: When you post bail to get some of these prisoners released from custody, what amounts of money are we talking about?

Ragsdale: Bond can range anywhere from $500 all the way up to a maximum of around $10,000. But the way it works is that if a family member has enough money, they post 10 percent of the bond with a bondsman. So a $500 case is actually more like $50. A $1,000 case is actually $100. What I saw as a public defender is that a lot of the time, people’s family members don’t even have that $50 or $100 or $200 to get somebody out of jail.

Friedersdorf: So a lack of $50 might keep someone in prison for weeks?

Ragsdale: Absolutely. That happens all the time.

Some have ICE holds. [Holds that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers put on prisoners suspected of being in the country illegally.] That means there’s a procedural or technical issue that makes it difficult for them to get out, even if ICE isn’t going to pick them up. Some people I’m speaking to have technical violations of probation. And there's some people who have, you know, very serious charges, who can’t bond out, but who are still human beings. These are people who still have not been found guilty of any of the crimes they have committed or are accused of committing. So there’s a responsibility to take care of every single person inside of there, regardless of whether or not they have a bond, how much their bond is. or what their situation is. Every single person I spoke to has been in pretrial detention. Every one is legally presumed innocent.

Friedersdorf: Is there any attempt to screen people who are coming in?

Ragsdale: The first time that I went, there was no screening at all. The second time that I went in there, last week, they did take my temperature. And if you’re above a certain temperature, you can’t go in. So that was definitely a change. There was no equipment provided. I had to bring my own mask and gloves. I brought a sock to put over the phone because the phones are kind of gross. In general, I honestly felt very nervous going to the jail, and I’m definitely self-quarantining for the next 14 days.

Friedersdorf: What are you trying to find out when you go inside the jails? Why are you talking face-to-face?

Ragsdale: So, it depends. It’s really important for the community bail fund that I work with, which is run by a group called Fem Power. It’s really important to know people’s situations. It’s important to know if people have a place to go when they come out or if we need to find a way to put them up in housing. We obviously don’t want to release people back into the streets. So for some visits, the purpose is just to get information to ensure that when we actually bond somebody out, we have a support system in place to make sure they don’t pick up new charges when they’re out. Often, when people take a new charge, it’s because they stole something. It’s often just a direct result of poverty. And to just make sure that we have a good sense of when to pick people up and things like that. I wasn’t going in to look at jail conditions at all.

Fridersdorf: Are you planning on going back again?

Ragsdale: I am not sure. I really, really don’t want to; just being honest with you. I didn’t feel comfortable going back the last time. I feel very uncomfortable. But if I’m asked by the people I’m working with, I probably will.

Fridersdorf: A lot of people in different professions are feeling discomfort during this pandemic, yet are still doing things that make them feel uncomfortable: supermarket clerks, nurses, doctors. What goes into your calculation to do that?

Ragsdale: For me, my calculus is, one, I do not want to get coronavirus. I’m really, really, really terrified of that.

But on the other side of things, if I am trying to get in contact with somebody who’s inside and I’ve continually missed their calls, or it’s somebody who seems like they really, really need some additional support, I feel like I need to do that. I just think that there are so many people who are sitting in jail who don’t have anybody to talk to on the outside who can advocate for them. At the very least, I have protective equipment, I can sanitize my hands, I can take a shower. I have antibacterial soap. So if somebody really needs me, then I just feel like I have to go back in.

Friedersdorf: It sounds like the jail could minimize the risk for people like you just by giving prisoners better access to phones. Is that right?

Ragsdale: Oh, yeah. That would make such a huge difference. It would really help if people had free phone calls. If somebody had free access to phone calls, people would feel no reservations about calling you. Or if I was able to call the jail and get in contact with somebody. I call the jail right now, they tell me we can’t relay messages to people inside. When I went to the jail the first time, I saw family members who were talking to the guards inside and crying, saying, I don’t know what’s happening to my son. I heard that there was coronavirus in Metrowest and I can’t get in contact with him. He hasn’t been able to call me.

Last time I checked, I think phone calls were 51 or 52 cents a minute. That adds up quickly. I usually can’t have more than two 30-minute phone calls with somebody during a day without refilling my card with $40. So it’s just not affordable. And I’m somebody that has a steady paycheck. For a lot of people who are sitting in jail, they don’t even call their family members. There’s not enough time to have any kind of real conversation with people they need to contact. Access to phone calls and working video units are absolutely necessary during this time.

Wells: As a public defender, you’ve probably experienced a lot of frustrating situations. How does this compare?

Ragsdale: I’ve never experienced something that feels so urgent. You’re seeing what’s happening in Rikers, what’s happening in Cook County, where the rate of infection is absolutely horrific. It’s just so, so, so important to decarcerate as soon as possible, because just releasing people frees up space for people who remain. I can’t imagine what the actual rates of infection are. There’s so many medically vulnerable people. People over the age of 50, 60, 70, people with cancer. I talked to a paraplegic the other day. People in the worst kinds of medical situations. And it actually pains me to think about what might happen to them. I’ve never experienced such a moral calling to act.