CLEARWATER, FL - June 16, 2020 - According to an online news report published on Patch.com, the Pinellas County sheriff stated that the Pinellas County Jail is now turning away defendants who are charged with minor criminal charges due to a new coronavirus outbreak at the jail. The Pinellas County Jail is in crisis as the jail has seen a record number of workers, officers, and prisoners testing positive for COVID-19. According to a statement from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Pinellas County jail must begin the process of turning away inmates who committed lesser crimes to keep the prison safe. Sheriff Gualtieri announced on Thursday while attending the Pinellas County Commission meeting his decision to turn away some convicts because more than 18 inmates and employees tested positive for COVID-19. Sheriff Gualtieri stated that the jail has a big problem, and it is an outbreak of the coronavirus, and the issue is significant.
Fortunately, the Pinellas County jail has an adequate number of isolation facilities to house any inmates at the jail who tested positive for COVID-19. Sheriff Gualtieri stated that he was worried about new inmates entering the jail. Sheriff Gualtieri said that they need to develop new strategies to flatten the coronavirus infection curve. Sheriff Gualtieri added that he had advised Pinellas County's police chiefs that the Pinellas County jail must turn away new inmates unless the jail absolutely has to book the new inmates. Sheriff Gualtieri stated that he began taking action and speaking out when a total of thirteen staff members, along with five inmates, tested positive for COVID-19 in the past twenty-four hours. The jail is awaiting the test results for 14 additional Pinellas County jail workers. Sheriff Gualtieri reported that a majority of the infected staff members work as detention deputies in the Pinellas County jail's North Division or work inside the inmate records department. Sheriff Gualtieri said that the inmates who tested positive for coronavirus were incarcerated at the C Barracks in the Clearwater jail.
Dozens of workers inside the jail's records department were sent home to quarantine for two weeks in order to help stop the spread of the virus at the jail.
Sheriff Gualtieri also implemented the following additional safety measures:
- All inmates will make court appearances will by video conferencing, and there will be no transporting of inmates.
- Judges were asked not to remand certain defendants to custody.
- When needed, the defendants will use a mask, and they will be moved in a compound transport van.
- No prisoners will be moved to the Florida Department of Corrections or any other correctional facility.
- All Florida law enforcement agencies have been asked to refer misdemeanor cases to the State Attorney's Office and not to issue notices to appear, and to stop making physical arrests unless the suspect has been charged with violations of injunctions, domestic violence, or anyone who may be a threat to public safety. Alternatively, law enforcement officers and Sheriff's deputies are instructed to order the suspect to report to the jail and to purge the arrest warrant by making payment on their bond.
- If an individual has been arrested on a misdemeanor warrant, the Sheriff's department will communicate with the duty judge and attempt to have the individual is released on his or her own recognizance.
- All county staff, contract staff, and corrections staff will be expected to wear a surgical or cloth or mask while at the jail. N95 masks (with filtration systems) are to be worn by all staff when they are in the proximity of an inmate who with suspected or is known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.
- All inmates at the jail are going to be issued a mask and will be and required to wear the mask as they leave their housing area or when they have direct contact with jail staff. Also, the inmates will be allowed and encouraged to wear the masks inside their housing units.
- All commissary items will be sanitized prior to entering the jail and will only be distributed by the jail's staff.
- Chaplain and social workers will interact with the inmates via the inmate kiosk system.
Sheriff Gualtieri stated that these new safety measures would continue until further notice.
According to a news report published on abcactionnews.com on June 12, 2020, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri retracted his no-bond policy for any protester who has been arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor. The policy was part of the aforementioned coronavirus safety measures for the Pinellas County jail.
Last week, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested dozens of protesters and charged them with unlawful assembly. The arrest and charge of unlawful assembly would automatically place the suspect in jail for 24-hours, and the suspects would automatically be denied bail.
The ACLU of Florida stated that Unlawful assembly is not a violent charge. Therefore, those charged with unlawful assembly should not be book and held overnight in jail. After the statement made by the ACLU of Florida, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office stated that they were retracting the “no-bond policy” for those individuals charged with any non-violent misdemeanor such as “unlawful assembly.”
Critics state that the policy change should not have caused the change in policy, but the fact that a person charged with a non-violent misdemeanor should not sit in jail but receive a “notice to appear.” Other critics state that no person should ever be arrested for attending a peaceful event and exercising their constitutionally-protected, first amendment right to freedom of speech.
Some of those arrested were attempting to leave the protest as the protests became more violent. One protestor, who was arrested, was seen on video explaining that she was leaving and pointed to her car which was within a few steps. Many of the protestors feel that their lives were put at risk due to the jail coronavirus outbreaks.