Brandi Jefferson calls her brother and daughter daily from Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she has been held since March 2020. As the primary caretaker of her 16-year-old daughter, Jefferson worries about their long separation and asks her how she is while living with the extended family. It had been a while since the two of them were just the two of them, and she worries that she will miss so many moments, including two of her daughter’s birthdays, amid a global health crisis.
Jefferson, 37, also asks her brother how the whole world is reacting to the pandemic that unfolded while she was in a cell, as she lives in constant fear of falling ill inside the prison compound. She explained that she continued to meet symptomatic people new to prison and was afraid to assume they only had a cold. Each cough is a source of worry because she does not have the opportunity to distance herself from the new potentially ill incarcerated people. And without access to regular Covid-19 testing, she began making additional masks with socks or scraps of fabric to protect herself.
“When a new person comes in, I ask the guards, ‘When are we going to get tested? When are we going to get tested? ‘ Jefferson said. “And they say ‘Wednesday’, then they say they’re going to postpone it until Thursday. “
Jefferson said she had only been tested twice in about 18 months of incarceration.
Confined spaces and a transient population of incarcerated people and guards make prisons particularly susceptible to the spread of Covid-19, a virus transmitted by particles in the air.
Broward County Jail’s positive Covid-19 cases soared as the most contagious delta variant continued to spread, from a positive case in July to 129 in September as the facility struggled to spread. struggling to comply with Covid-19 testing requirements – a problem since the start of the pandemic.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, and Disability Rights Florida sued the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in June 2020, alleging conditions that could contribute to the spread of Covid-19, including a lack of comprehensive testing for those entering prison and those already in prison.
“They don’t do full tests at the prison when that’s really the only way to find out who is entering the facility with Covid, and it’s the only way to treat people in a medically appropriate manner,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, Senior Litigation Advisor at the ACLU. . “You can’t do social distancing and all the other stuff in a crowded building where people aren’t allowed to leave.”
Broward’s incarcerated class and sheriff’s office reached a settlement agreement in November, and a federal court approved it in May. The regulations included guidelines for testing incarcerated people on admission and quarantining those who tested positive.
But the prison did not initially follow the terms of the settlement, the ACLU said. According to data that the Broward County Jail sent to the ACLU, for a week in August the jail tested only 173 of the 499 people who entered the facility, or about 34%.
A representative from the Broward Sheriff’s Office said the jail “is meeting or exceeding its obligations under the settlement agreement and was doing so even before the complaint was filed.” regulation, shows that it has only recently started to conduct more comprehensive admission tests. A court hearing to enforce the terms of the settlement has been set for October 21.
Rosenbloom co-counsel Benjamin Stevenson, Florida ACLU attorney, said the next hearing is needed despite recent admission testing efforts, as the response to the pandemic should have been immediate and ongoing.
“The Covid pandemic has affected us all, and we are all trying to take the necessary steps to mitigate the spread, and unfortunately for people who are in jail or in prison, they have to rely on their wardens, their wardens, to provide these care and access. “Said Stevenson.
Being at the mercy of someone else for protection and access to healthcare has been an ongoing battle for Strajah Hightower, who said it took over seven days to get a Covid-19 test when a woman in the cell next to his has tested positive for the virus.
“We all use the same bathroom; we all use the same shower, ”said Hightower. “So basically we’re getting in touch with this person who has Covid. “
Hightower, 26, has been in Broward County Jail since November 2018, awaiting trial. Like Jefferson, she experienced the pandemic within the walls of Broward County Jail with limited power over her safety.
She said waiting for a Covid-19 test for more than seven days after exposure resulted in bouts of anxiety and panic. Hightower would repeatedly ask the guards to take a test and possibly quarantine her, and she said they would tell him that would happen soon. But she said she feared that seven days without testing and in contact with close people would be too long to risk.
“It’s really a doomsday scenario when you introduce the delta variant and start a chain of spread,” said Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital in New York City.
Even though prisons have long been recognized as “hotbeds of infection,” there is little recourse to protect incarcerated people from disease, said Aaron Littman, clinical professor at UCLA School of Law and deputy director of the ‘UCLA Covid Behind Bars Data Project.
Flu epidemics and the spread of other illnesses raised concerns before Covid-19, but most prisons are county-run and healthcare protocols vary widely with limited state regulation. As a result, prisons are often not regulated in health care protocol, resulting in delayed testing and other measures.
As the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the ACLU prepare for their Oct. 21 court date, Littman, who has been investigating the Covid-19 jail and jail deaths, pointed out that the County Jail in Broward is not unique. What is remarkable is bringing this self-regulated county jail to a place where the public and the court can see the impact of the struggle for testing within the jail.
“We really don’t know much about what’s going on in prisons in general because they’re all their own little stronghold,” Littman said. “These are places where we just don’t know much, except potentially through litigation. “