At Broward County’s main jail, inmates are on their knees, scrubbing their cells with "sanitizers" made from soap mixed with Diet Coke. They can hear the hacking cough of those in neighboring cells. In an environment where physical distancing is practically impossible, they are sitting ducks trying to survive.
Amid the dismal chorus of coughs, dozens of Broward inmates have fevers — and with their rising temperatures have come rising tensions. COVID-19, whose U.S. death toll to date is nearing 70,000, is making its rounds through the cellblocks and inflaming hostility between inmates and jail staff.
"I'm in the middle of a war zone," says a 34-year-old inmate who has complained of chest pains. "I'm trying to not get sick, but the deputies don't care. It's a joke to them."
Though the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) assured the public in mid-April that it is diligently working to combat the spread of the disease, the COVID-19 Hotline for Incarcerated People (CHIP) has received multiple reports from inmates in the past week that contradict that promise. Arrestees say their cells remain overcrowded and that the disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) they were given is not regularly replenished.
"Nothing has changed," says 42-year-old Zavier Permenter. "The rooms are very hot. We have no ventilation. [The cells] are not livable and not sanitized. There are feces all over the walls."
According to CHIP, a local all-volunteer effort, dozens of inmates have recently complained of shortness of breath, body aches, vomiting, and gastrointestinal issues; one arrestee has had diarrhea for two weeks now.
As of today, at least five inmates at the main jail have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. But of the 119 inmates who have contacted the hotline, only eight say they've been able to get a test in jail. The lack of testing paired with their inability to physically distance themselves from others could be a recipe for disaster for both inmates and the stressed-out staff.
Throughout most of April, tests had been reserved for inmates with the most severe symptoms. Because public-health experts believe many people positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic but contagious, that approach has almost certainly put the health of the broader inmate population in jeopardy.
"I'm afraid of dying in here," says 40-year-old Asmar West, who has felt sick since mid-April. "I have trouble breathing and a cough, but the nurse says I can't get tested. Everyone in here should be tested automatically. They are playing a guessing game, walking around taking people's temperatures."
Gerdy St. Louis, a spokesperson for BSO, says the jails' healthcare provider, Wellpath, is in the process of testing more inmates.
"Currently, all symptomatic inmates suspected of exposure to COVID-19 have been tested," she says. "Going forward, Wellpath will be expanding the testing to include all inmates that have been quarantined as a precaution due to potential exposure to COVID-19."
Some of those behind bars suffer from serious pre-existing conditions such as hepatitis C, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The lack of testing puts those who are immunosuppressed at a higher risk of not only acquiring COVID-19 but also developing severe complications as a result.
To make the situation worse, many inmates say the facemasks they were given are falling apart, rendering them ineffective.
"My mask is very out of proportion now," Permenter says, noting that he has used it nonstop for a week. "It’s all torn up."
Jail staff only began distributing the potentially life-saving PPE, arrestees say, after activists with Chainless Change launched a mobile demonstration outside of the facility April 10.
Through the glass windows of their cells, some inmates also report seeing staff travel to COVID quarantine cells, then serve food to non-quarantined arrestees without changing gloves taking off their protective suits. As a result, some inmates have stopped eating.
Some inmates, desperate to protect themselves against the virus, have devised concoctions derived from soda to clean their cells.
Nicole Morse, one of CHIP's organizers, says some Broward inmates have reported being threatened with physical harm for calling the hotline or being deprived of the one-hour opportunity they're afforded each day to leave their cells.
"The situation at Broward County jail is horrific, with outrageous medical neglect, insufficient nutrition, unsanitary conditions, and abuse and retaliation," Morse says. "Staff are getting sick and are under tremendous stress, and this probably contributes to the mistreatment that callers report."
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Sgt. Donald Prichard tells New Times the BSO will investigate those complaints, although the agency has "no reason to believe" staff members are retaliating against those who speak out about living conditions.
The whirlwind of confusion and fear and the unnerving sounds of coughs are part of an uncharted chapter of the main jail's 35-year existence. While the staff attempts to uphold an incarceration model now compromised by the pandemic, assistant public defender Gordon Weekes tells New Times some inmates charged with nonviolent crimes are in the process of being released, in light of the current circumstances.
Still, there will undoubtedly be many inmates left in the nightmarish state of affairs at Broward jails. As the situation stands, thousands are at risk of contracting the deadly disease — most of them while still waiting for their day in court.
"There are a lot of innocent people who are trapped in here and can't afford to be represented by the attorneys who could get their cases moving more quickly," one anonymous caller told CHIP. "Innocent people are sitting in jail, and God forbid they should die in this box of concrete and steel without even being proven guilty."