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County jails haven't been inspected in more than a year, now 'optional' inspections have advocates frustrated

Should county jails be allowed opt-out of physical inspections?
Jail inmate dies after struggling with guards
Posted at 7:46 AM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 11:11:46-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Local jails across Florida haven’t been inspected by outside inspectors in more than one year, with some closing in on 21 months.

That’s a problem believes Florida Representative Omari Hardy, a Democrat who represents parts of Palm Beach.

“There are issues in there, not just with COVID but with sanitation. If there was ever a time we needed oversight and transparency over what’s going on in our jails it’s now, during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hardy said.

Last year, the Florida Model Jail Standards Committee (FMJSC), which provides the only state’s outside oversight on Florida’s 93 locally operated jails, suspended annual inspections due to the pandemic.

Then, last month the Committee Chairman, Sumter County Sheriff Bill Farmer, issued a memo advising jails they could proceed with their Jail Operations and Medical Inspections. However, the notice also gives jails across the state the opportunity to opt out of on-site inspections. Agencies who opt out must provide a letter to the Committee promising their own compliance with Florida jail standards.

“That’s not oversight, that’s pinky promise oversight,” said Hardy.

According to Sheriff Farmer’s liaison, Inspector James Aguiar Jr., only jails in Columbia and Polk County have been inspected this year.

Sheriffs or jail administrators in Gadsden, Escambia, Desoto, Clay and Broward County have already sent letters indicating they are opting out of a formal inspection this year.

“Broward County is known to have a problem with COVID-19 outbreaks in their jails,” said Hardy. “They have been sued over issues with COVID- 19 in their jails, so the idea that jails in Broward county are deemed to be ok bc the people who run them gave this committee a letter, it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. The lawsuit against the Broward County Sheriff has reached a settlement.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s office told us they would also be opting out of the inspection. The FMJSC would not provide copies of any completed inspections or any waiver letters they’ve received. Instead, they advised we contact individual agencies for the public records. No-one from the FMJSC would speak with us on camera either.

In an email, Aguilar told us, “your request for a Zoom interview is denied at this time.” Aguiar has not answered follow up questions we asked including what the Committee’s response is to advocates who believe each jail must be inspected as soon as possible.

In a copy of a waiver letter provided to us by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office, it indicates the agency conducted a mock inspection back in September to ensure no issues were found. A spokesperson from the agency also told Reporter Katie LaGrone, the county jails all remain accredited.

But critics are hardly convinced what local jails say is being done behind bars can be trusted without a look from the outside.

“They’re safe enough for employees to go into every day for a shift and if they’re safe enough to house people who have not been convicted of any crime in many cases, then they’re safe enough for people to put on protective gear and inspect,” Hardy said.

The Florida Jail Model Standards Committee falls under the Florida Sheriff’s Association and is made up of five white men with long histories in law enforcement. Hardy believes more diversity is needed, not just from an ethnic standpoint but he believes the Committee should be made up of individuals from all aspects of the legal justice system. The Committee has yet to meet since the pandemic began.

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