Family members, prison reform advocates rally for furloughs for Florida inmates amid COVID-19 concerns

As family members push for the early release of state prison inmates, it appears Florida has little authority, to do that. But a letter has been sent to Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, requesting that he considers temporary release under a little known furlough program.

SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — As family members push for the early release of state prison inmates, it appears Florida has little authority, to do that. But a letter has been sent to Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, requesting that he considers temporary release under a little known furlough program.

Randy Cotton had served most of his 13-year sentence for various drug charges at Sumter Correntional Institution in Bushnell. On April 24, Cotton was rushed to a hospital because he was experiencing shortness of breath and respiratory distress.

He tested positive for COVID-19.

Content Continues Below
“Coronavirus

He died 14 days later on May 8.

Cotton had underlying health conditions, according to the medical examiner’s report Channel 9 obtained through public records laws. He was diabetic, had high blood pressure and an enlarged prostate.

It’s a narrative Venessa Grullon fears for her husband who is serving his time at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

”My husband is asthmatic, so it’s just concerning. I wish the department of corrections would step up,” Grullon said.

Prison reform advocates are pressuring Inch, too.

Greg Newburn is based in Florida, working for a national organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He sent a letter to Inch requesting that he consider using an administrative rule that permits corrections to allow inmate furloughs.

“It’s a very straight forward reading of the rule, you have the power to do it, nothing in the rule says you can’t. It’s in the public interest, so you should do it. This is not complicated at all. We know who’s eligible for these furloughs,” Newburn said.

The program was put in place to do the following:

  • Ease the transition from prison to into the community
  • Help the inmates seek employment
  • Determine their readiness for release
  • Preserve family ties
  • Develop occupational skills

In a statement, the department of corrections said “the rule relates to individualized circumstances warranting brief and finite extensions of confinement with specific criteria for eligibility, not authorize the release of entire subpopulations of inmates for an indefinite amount of time. Florida law has established Conditional Medical Release (CMR), and the Department continues to recommend CMR-eligible inmates to the Florida Commission on Offender Review for release consideration.”

A representative said in a separate statement: “Given the current pandemic, it is critical that proper post-release medical services and housing options are established. Even under normal circumstances, it is not uncommon for staff to work months in advance of release to find appropriate housing for inmates (particularly elderly and medically needy inmates) and to ensure they have adequate health care upon release. Inmates who are released at the completion of their sentence are furnished with a cloth face covering or surgical grade mask.

Release dates have not been affected. If an inmate is scheduled to be released and in medical quarantine or isolation, FDC classification and health services staff will work with the inmate to provide him or her with as much information and support upon release as possible. Inmates who are receiving medical care will be addressed by health services staff to transition to a similar level of care upon release.”

So far, nine inmates’ deaths have been linked to COVID-19 and two prisons in Central Florida, Sumter and Tomoka, have had among the most inmates test positive, with more than 200.

At Sumter, more than half the capacity of the prison population is in medical quarantine because they were in contact with someone who tested positive.

At Tomoka nearly the entire population of 1,200 inmates are in quarantine, including Grullon’s husband, who sent her a picture of the mask he's using to try and stay safe.

“People are being sentenced to death sentence,” Grullon said.

9 Investigates has received more than a dozen messages from family members concerned about COVID-19 in state prisons, and the lack of testing, despite the growing number of cases.