Florida state prisons closed to new inmates as they try to prevent the spread of coronavirus

Florida prisons have temporarily stopped accepting new inmates, a move aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus in state correctional facilities but that shifts the burden of housing offenders to local officials.

The Department of Corrections confirmed the move Wednesday, two days after the new policy, first reported by the Florida Times-Union, was implemented.

In a statement issued Wednesday, department officials said they will restrict the intake of inmates and “new commitments from counties” until March 30. But they said the timeline could change following further consultation with public health officials, amid heightened fears about the rapidly spreading disease known as COVID-19.

The decision to curtail the flow of inmates into the state prison system, which houses roughly 96,000 offenders, comes a week after Department of Corrections officials canceled visitation until April 5. Prisoners’ lawyers are still allowed to have face-to-face visits.

Corrections officials’ move to stop taking new inmates could have a wide-ranging impact on county jails, which could become overcrowded because of the new policy. 

In the statement, Department of Corrections officials said they “informed the Florida Sheriff’s Association regarding this measure.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the president of the sheriffs association, told The News Service of Florida he has communicated with Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch and his staff about the plan.

“Last week, the Florida Department of Corrections suspended all new prison commitments for two weeks. Sheriffs have been working closely with DOC on this issue and we expect a resolution in the near future,” Gualtieri said in a statement Wednesday.

For the next two weeks, “the inmates who have been sentenced to state prison will remain in county jails,” the sheriff said.

“This is an evolving situation that is being assessed each and every day,” he added.

Corrections officials until Monday had required all inmates entering correctional facilities to be screened, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the respiratory virus. The department had also said it would restrict the entrance of inmates if they had traveled internationally or on a cruise within the last two weeks, showed symptoms of a respiratory disease or had contact with someone suspected of being infected with COVID-19.

While there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in state prison facilities, some county jails have already faced scares.

The Miami Herald reported that some workers at a Miami-Dade County jail were sent home and inmates were isolated on Saturday, while a new arrestee awaited results of a COVID-19 test.

State prison officials reassured the public on Tuesday that the department is “fully prepared to handle any potential cases of COVID-19 within the state operated correctional institutions in Florida.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.