JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax’s Ben Becker investigates growing COVID-19 variant concerns in our local jails and court systems as infections increase.
Becker has learned jury trials have been cancelled this week in St. Johns, Putnam and Volusia counties and the Chief Judge in Duval said rising jail COVID-19 numbers is a “bellwether” for the community as new court protocols begin Monday.
“It’s been difficult for the court system,” says 4th Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon, which covers Duval County.
Becker has learned from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that 2,389 inmates are now in a “precautionary quarantine” because 103 inmates are COVID-19 positive. The Duval County Jail and other JSO detention facilities house more than 3,000 inmates.
JSO sent Becker the following statement:
“There has been no change in the CDC guidelines being followed within our all of correctional housing facilities. Furthermore, our staff continues the COVID-19 mitigation protocols, which includes testing inmates upon admission and anytime they exhibit symptoms. Inmates that are confirmed COVID-19 positive are removed from the general inmate population and quarantined to prevent further spread. We have an on-site medical provider that monitors our inmate population, however, inmates requiring hospital care due to COVID-19 or any other health condition are transported to local area hospitals. All areas of our facilities are regularly cleaned and disinfected in accordance with CDC guidance and all persons within the facilities are required to wear masks; inmates included.
“It has been our practice to place dorms within the facility in a “precautionary quarantine” status at times when we suspect or confirm that inmates within an area may have come into contact with a positive COVID-19 individual. This management practice is done solely out of an abundance of caution, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the inmate population.
“Currently, as of 8 a.m. this morning, there are 103 confirmed COVID-19 cases in all Department of Corrections facilities. Additionally, there are several dorms placed on a “precautionary status” impacting 2,389 inmates to further limit contact and protect the health of the remaining population. For a point of reference, I would like to note that in July of 2020, we experienced our highest levels of COVID-19 cases, topping out at 449 positive cases.”
“We always monitor the number of Covid cases in the jail and if those people can be brought to court,” Mahon said.
Becker obtained a memo that lays out new court protocols that are being put into place:
“Effective Monday, July 12, 2021, the following matters have been established for felony cases involving in-custody defendants who are in precautionary quarantine:
“Intervening Pretrial or other intervening court dates:
“Inmates in precautionary quarantine will not be brought to the Courthouse for intervening court dates.
“Final Pre-trial and Trials:
“Inmates displaying COVID-like symptoms will not be brought to the Courthouse.
“Inmates who do not display symptoms will be rapid tested prior to Final Pre-trial.
- Anyone who tests positive will not be brought to the Courthouse.
- Anyone who tests negative (and is without symptoms) will be brought to the Courthouse for Final Pre-Trial. Said individual will be rapid tested again just before jury selection. If the individual again tests negative, trial may proceed.
“Proposed Plea Agreements:
“We will temporarily establish “duty weeks” for handling of all proposed plea agreements (not just time-served) for cases where an in-custody defendant is in precautionary quarantine. The process is as follows:
- Inmates will be taken to J-2 to appear before the Court via Zoom. “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” Court will begin at 1:00 p.m. daily, if and as needed.
- J-2 and any interested parties will dial into a Zoom Room called “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances.” The Zoom ID number is: 671-399-7389. “Telephonic-only” connections to Zoom will not be available/allowed.
- The duty judge will preside in Courtroom 202. A Smart Board will be placed in Courtroom 202. Per IT, the equipment will be prepared in a manner that joining the “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” Zoom session from Courtroom 202 will essentially require pushing a button. Importantly, each duty judge’s regular courtroom staff will provide the services needed in Courtroom 202 for that given week (i.e.: bailiffs, clerk, probation officer and court reporter).
- Counsel shall appear in Courtroom 202. Each lawyer will need to bring a laptop to Courtroom 202 so as to join the Zoom call by video (do not join audio, as the Courtroom is a functioning “Zoom room”).
- Any cases that need to be set on the “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” calendar shall be communicated by counsel to the Courtroom Clerk and Bailiff Coordinator.
- The Bailiff Coordinator in each courtroom shall communicate all such cases to command staff (including Major Colvin, Lt. Price, and Sgt. Brunner) no later than 10 a.m. so that the inmate may appear in J-2 at 1 p.m.
- Similarly, the Courtroom Clerk for each division will communicate to the clerk’s office/duty clerk those cases that will be set on a given day’s Precautionary Quarantine Appearances calendar.
- All plea-related documents must be sent by counsel to the division JA, who will then forward it to the duty judge JA.
“Judge Soud will be the duty judge the week of 7/12/2021.
“Judge Borello will be the duty judge the week of 7/19/2021.
“Future weeks will be scheduled shortly.”
“In the jail there is so much testing done, we feel like accurate numbers (are) coming out of (the) jail,” Mahon said. “The jail is the canary in the coal mine or the bellwether for the fact of more COVID-19 in the community.”
The Florida Department of Health reported last week, Duval had more than 2,000 new weekly COVID-19 cases — a 350% weekly increase since late May.
The jump in COVID-19 cases comes as the Duval County Courthouse just resumed in-person felony court on June 21 and misdemeanor in-person proceedings on June 28.
Action News Jax first reported in June the State Attorney’s Office had a backlog of 4,725 cases, a 61% increase over a year ago.
“Workloads have increased,” State Attorney Melissa Nelson told Becker in June. “It’s not unique to Jacksonville, it’s a concern across the state.”
Mahon said the courthouse is staying open for now.
“It’s the fundamentals of our society to have a have a fair and speedy administration of justice,” Mahon said.
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