Protester chained to barrels in front of governor’s mansion demands release of prisoners at risk of COVID-19

by Rachel Clark of IWOC and Mei Azaad of Fight Toxic Prisons

On the morning of April 17, a protest took place at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mansion in Tallahassee, Florida, demanding the governor take immediate action to protect prisoners from COVID-19. Protestors demanded that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch take immediate steps to:

  • Release people from state prisons, county jails, juvenile and immigrant detention centers, beginning with those most vulnerable to infection and those nearest to their release dates,
  • Provide proper sanitation supplies, soap and personal protective equipment to everyone inside prisons and jails while release plans are implemented,
  • Require all facilities to provide free phone calls and video visitations during the pandemic and until FDOC reinstates in-person visitations,
  • Terminate all costs associated with seeking medical care and essential hygiene products, ensuring prisoners can see the doctor upon first request.

At the demonstration an activist chained themself to barrels reading “End the Massacre” and “Free Prisoners Now” beneath a banner that read “DeSantis and Inch, 1000s Will Die, COVID = Death, Act Now!” Protestors brought a letter addressed to the governor listing the demands and imploring him to act immediately.

In Florida alone, we can expect to see the deaths of over 7,500 people in prisons and jails (Business Insider). 

This protest came on the heels of news that for over a week the FDOC hid the deaths of two prisoners from COVID-19 at Blackwater River Correctional Facility, with an additional two COVID-19 related deaths announced late Thursday evening (Florida Phoenix). Meanwhile, neither FDOC Secretary Mark Inch nor Gov. Ron DeSantis have taken any substantive steps to release or protect prisoners, indeed only hastening the guaranteed infection of tens of thousands behind bars by reinstituting transfers of prisoners between prisons within the last week. 

Prisons and jails are unique in their ability to rapidly spread COVID-19. New York City jails have reported an infection rate nearly 10 times higher than New York State as a whole, and 18 times higher than the rate in Italy. With this rate of infection, a projected 100,000 prisoners across the country will die from COVID-19 if releases do not happen. In Florida alone, we can expect to see the deaths of over 7,500 people in prisons and jails (Business Insider). 

Shortly after 10 a.m., the fire department blocked off visibility to the scene using tarps. The person locked down was given no protective equipment besides a thin blanket as the fire department proceeded to cut away at the barrels using a chisel, jackhammer and electric saw, recklessly cutting the person out for over an hour. The protestor was booked at Leon County Jail and bailed out by supporters later the same day. 

In addition to the initial bail costs, the action raised enough funds from across the country to put $3,000 more toward bail efforts in Florida.

Friday’s protest was the latest escalation in a series of demonstrations across the state that started with car caravans engaging in various “honk-out” protests against the inaction of county jails and state prisons around COVID-19. On Monday, groups from across Florida converged in Tallahassee and surrounded the Capitol building and the FDOC building to bring these demands directly to DeSantis and Inch (Tallahassee Democrat). 

Every day DeSantis and Inch fail to take action guarantees an ever-growing number of people behind bars will die. Blood is already on their hands but they still have the power to prevent, or perpetrate, a massacre. The choice is theirs.

Rachel Clark of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) can be reached at gainesvilleiwoc@gmail.com and Mei Azaad of Fight Toxic Prisons at fighttoxicprisons@gmail.com