A Pandemic in Prison
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Anthony Swain wouldn’t sleep at night because he was afraid he’d stop breathing.
Swain, 43, is a quadriplegic, having been shot in the spine during a home invasion when he was 20, and has a number of other ailments that have followed since. In 2019, he was diagnosed with cystic myelomalacia, a softening of the spine that can lead to death by respiratory paralysis. So, he would spend his nights sitting on his bed at the Metro West Detention Center in Miami, reading his Bible and talking to the men in the bunks beside him who had to wake up in the dead of night to get ready to distribute breakfast.
When Swain saw news about the COVID-19 pandemic in February, he became doubly afraid. The medical unit he was in had several men with high fevers and other COVID-19 symptoms, and people were constantly being brought in and out. The men in the cell had no hand sanitizer, no masks, no way to distance themselves. Swain fashioned his own mask from a yellow sock and an elastic string from his catheter bag.
In late April, Swain began to feel short of breath. He said a doctor told him it was from anxiety.
He made five requests for a COVID-19 test, which he said were denied.
“When I told them I wanted to be tested for COVID-19, they looked at me as if I’d committed a crime,” said Swain.
It wasn’t until May 10, when Swain was taken to the hospital with a urinary tract infection, that he got a COVID-19 test, and the positive diagnosis he’d suspected all along. He was then sent to the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center (TGK), the jail where people who have contracted COVID-19 are being housed.
“I’m in here with individuals that wind up not breathing, not eating for two days, being isolated in a 6 by 4 cell, and we’re not getting adequate care,” Swain said when he called me on May 29. “It’s a very humbling, melancholy experience. It is a very hurtful reality.”
The infection rate of COVID-19 in correctional facilities, where people typically don’t have the option to distance themselves and weren’t given masks until very recently, is about 2½ times higher than in the general population. While those incarcerated are most at risk, corrections officers have also contracted and died from the virus. At least 59,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in jails and prisons around the country, and at least 557 incarcerated persons and employees have died.
Within Miami-Dade’s corrections department, 550 of the 1,166 incarcerated persons tested were found to have the virus. There are 3,266 people in the jails. A department spokesperson said that at present only 33 people still have the virus. Advocates believe the number is much higher, and say that the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths have been difficult to track.
“Nobody dies in jail, because when people go to the hospital and they know they’re about to die, they release them from custody,” said Maya Ragsdale, an attorney with Florida-based advocacy group Dream Defenders. Medical records would then show that the person had died in the hospital as opposed to in the custody of the corrections department.
Advocates around the country have been pushing for people to be released to reduce the population, which would help slow the spread of the disease. Those in jails have not yet been found guilty of any crime, and advocates say that leaving them in crowded cells during a pandemic is a death sentence.
Swain was arrested in February 2016, on charges that he was running a pill mill. His bond was originally set for $1.2 million, then lowered to $650,000, still far more than he or his parents, Connie and Anthony Sr., could afford to pay. His parents have already used much of their retirement savings on lawyers, as Swain says he is innocent.
After Swain was diagnosed with COVID-19, his attorneys filed an emergency motion for his release. They also created a GoFundMe to raise $85,000—$65,000 for the 10 percent bond payment, and the remainder to take care of his medical needs once he was released.
Swain is one of the defendants listed in a federal lawsuit filed against the Miami Department of Corrections on April 5 by the Advancement Project National Office, Community Justice Project, Civil Rights Corps, GST LLP, and Dream Defenders. The lawsuit calls for the release of people in the city’s jails who are most vulnerable to catching COVID-19.
In late April, a judge issued an order for Metro West to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s health guidelines, which include maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet, providing a free supply of soap, and testing people who report COVID-19 symptoms.
Still, in early June, Marshall King Jr., who has been in jail for a year, said conditions at Metro West were much the same as they were before the order.
At Metro West, King, 48, was in a bunk next to Charles Hobbs Jr., the first person to die from COVID-19 in the Miami-Dade jail system.
King knew in late March that Hobbs, 51, was seriously ill.
“He snored very loudly, but he got so weak to where he couldn’t even snore,” King said of Hobbs. Then he would lay in the bed all day and didn’t have energy or strength to move.”
In early April, King started getting severe headaches and chills. Medical staff came to the cell and took his and Hobbs’ temperature. Hobbs’ was 108; King’s was 102, King said. They were given Tylenol, but they remained in the dormitory-style cell with the other 60 or so men housed there.
On April 19, King said that he was so weak he couldn’t eat and started hallucinating. He can’t remember much from that period, but he said the men who took care of him told him that he was crawling around and trying to get water from the toilet to cool his body. He was given Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol and Ensure, but no COVID-19 test, he said, because he was told his symptoms were not severe enough.
The department said it could not comment on this and other claims made about treatment and conditions at the jails because of pending litigation.
What King does remember is waking up early on the morning of April 28 and seeing Hobbs having what looked like a seizure, his hands balled into fists, fighting to breathe. King alerted a corrections officer and Hobbs was taken out of the cell by medical staff. Word traveled back to the cell the next day that Hobbs had died.
“I knew that I was having the same symptoms,” King said. “That's when I basically started to panic.”
The jail then tested 34 of the men who had shared the cell with Hobbs. According to King, 27 of them tested positive.
King and others who had tested positive were moved to another dormitory-style cell. A few days later, King’s nose started bleeding, he fell to the floor, and the next thing he remembers is being in the hospital.
“I heard this old Black lady, a doctor or somebody, a nurse or somebody, she say, ‘You have to breathe, baby, or you're going to die!’” he said.
King spent several days in the hospital and was then sent to TGK. He was moved back to Metro West on June 2, and said he was afraid he would catch another strain of the coronavirus. He said he wasn’t tested before leaving TGK, so is not sure if he still has the virus, but he has what he describes as a mind fog. His legs are also swollen, and he is worried about getting blood clots—another serious symptom of COVID-19.
The night King was transferred from TGK, he wrote a poem about a dream in which he attends a funeral and looks in the casket to see himself lying there.
“I am literally afraid for my life,” said King. “I lost belief in God a long time ago, but when I realized how serious this COVID thing was, I can tell you that it built back some of my belief in God. That's how I deal with it day to day. I have started back talking to God instead of cursing God.”
Patrick Baldwin, 24, also had COVID-19 and was held at TGK for about two weeks. In mid-May, after he lost his sense of smell and taste and was having difficulty breathing, he was tested for COVID-19. He was then placed in a cell used to isolate people for disciplinary reasons, and so lost his phone and other privileges. The following day paramedics had to rush him to the hospital after he almost went into cardiac arrest.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to die like this. I don’t want to die in these orange clothes,’” said Baldwin, referring to the uniform the men wear. “I literally closed my eyes and just started crying, ‘Lord, please carry me through this. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”
When Baldwin was released from the hospital, he went to TGK. On June 1, he was sent back to Metro West, where he was placed in a cell with people who have COVID-19.
Though a spokesperson for the corrections department said that “all inmates must be re-tested in order to be cleared” for transfer from TGK, Baldwin said he wasn’t tested and is, like King, worried about being reinfected.
Baldwin also isn’t getting food. He said police beat him when he was arrested on Jan. 9 and knocked out the molars on the right side of his face and displaced the molars on the left. The Homestead Police Department wrote in response to questions about Baldwin’s injuries: “There are records of the arrest. To date, The Homestead Police Department has not received any complaints either from Mr. Baldwin or a third party.”
At TGK, Swain would purchase soup for Baldwin from the commissary. At Metro West, Baldwin said he is only being given one can of Ensure a day. He is 6 feet tall and said that he is now down to around 140 pounds from about 160.
Swain said that he cried hearing Baldwin’s and King’s stories when he met them at TGK because it made him feel the lawsuit had been in vain.
“The whole reason that we started this petition is to help save people or to help prevent what is already occurring,” he said. “This lawsuit isn’t about money, it’s about injustice.”
At TGK, Swain continued to have difficulty breathing and so stayed up at night, reading his Bible and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
When I spoke with him on May 29, he spoke of his virus-related brain fog—"I feel as if I’m drifting through a cloud,” he said—and amplified the symptoms from some of his other ailments. He would often bounce up and down in his wheelchair because the pain was unbearable.
While Dream Defenders didn’t quite meet their GoFundMe goal, on June 4, they got a call from Colin Kaepernick, who contributed the remaining $15,000 for Swain’s bond.
Swain was released on June 12, fitted with an ankle monitor, and is on house arrest at his parents’ home in Brown Subdivision in Miami.
“It feels so surreal, but I’m excited. I feel like a roaring lion right now,” said Swain, the afternoon of his release.
He is committed to doing even more now to advocate on behalf of those he left behind—for better healthcare, treatment of those with disabilities, and overall conditions in the jail.
“This is not over,” Swain said. “It just gave me an opportunity to get started. If before you were fighting with your hands behind your back, what would that fight be like if your hands were now free?”