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Opinions

The last days of a covid-19 prisoner

Opinions

The last days of a covid-19 prisoner

(Matt Rota for The Washington Post)
correction

This article has been updated to reflect Charles Hobbs’s arrests in 2007 and 2014 and Miami-Dade County’s tracking of covid-19 deaths among prisoners.

It isn’t clear why Charles Hobbs was arrested in January. More than 20 years ago, a judge gave him five years probation for a crime that required him to register as a sex offender in one of the most restrictive counties in the country. He had no criminal record prior to that, and until January, his only subsequent arrests were for failing to register in 2007 and 2014. An attorney for his family says those arrests occurred when Hobbs temporarily moved in with a girlfriend and failed to notify the county where she lived.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the country, a judge ordered him released from jail and placed in home confinement, given his multiple underlying conditions of congenital heart failure, kidney failure and hypertension. But for reasons that also aren’t clear, that never happened. Last month, he caught the virus, and his condition deteriorated until a fellow prisoner found him unconscious. He was revived and transferred to another cell with other prisoners who had tested positive for covid-19. He got sicker and ultimately died alone in a Miami hospital on May 2.

Hobbs’s family was never even told he was sick. According to Johnny Gaspard, an attorney representing the family, the Metro West Detention Center in Miami-Dade County didn’t contact his relatives when Hobbs was found convulsing in his bed and sent to the makeshift cell for other positive prisoners. Nor did anyone contact them after he was again found convulsing in his bed and this time taken to a hospital by paramedics. The first they heard of his condition was when the hospital called Hobbs’s sister to ask whether she had the power to sign a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. At that point, Hobbs had already been resuscitated multiple times. The next call she received came on her way to the hospital, letting her know that her brother had died.

Hobbs’s family members also didn’t learn that he had contracted covid-19 from jail officials, from the medical examiner or even from the hospital. Instead, they learned it from a consortium of advocacy groups who discovered his death by chance while investigating a lawsuit on behalf of other prisoners in Miami’s jails.

For 22 years, Charles Hobbs tried to overcome the mistakes he made in 1997. But the stigma of a sex offense followed him all his life. Thanks to punitive laws, dizzying registration requirements and an indifferent corrections staff, his mistake would ultimately lead to his death.

“He tried his best to get past his offense and live his life”

In 1997, Charles Hobbs was arrested for the crime of “Lewd and Lascivious Contact with a Child." He was charged under a portion of the statute that addresses acts against children between the ages of 12 and 16. He would have been 29 at the time. The statute includes a wide range of offenses, from encouraging a minor to engage in sexual activity (but not engaging in it); to touching a minor’s genitals, breasts or buttocks, or having a minor touch the offender’s genitals, breasts or buttocks (including over clothing); to more explicitly sexual acts.

It’s uncertain which of these Hobbs was accused of doing — the details of the incident aren’t public — but the case’s outcome suggests that the judge and prosecutor either didn’t believe Hobbs was a particularly dangerous person or the state’s evidence against him wasn’t overwhelming. Technically, Hobbs wasn’t even convicted. His case was resolved with a “withhold of adjudication," a Florida law that allows a judge to impose a sentence but isn’t actually a conviction. The action is supposed to give low-level offenders a second chance and the opportunity to avoid the stigma of a criminal record. Hobbs was sentenced to five years probation.

But with sex offenses, any protection from stigma that would come with a “withhold of adjudication” order is offset by lifelong registry on the state sex offender list. And Miami-Dade County, where Hobbs was born and lived nearly all of his life, has some of the most aggressive sex offender laws in the country. The Marshall Project reported in 2018 that a “combination of federal, state and local laws has rendered almost all of Miami-Dade County off-limits,” and found that a large percentage of the county’s sex offenders are homeless, though they’re also forbidden from staying in homeless shelters. Nearly all of the city of Miami is restricted, as is a large portion of the surrounding county.

The state of Florida also has stringent reporting requirements. Sex offenders must re-register two to four times each year (depending on the offense), as well as any time they move or leave the state. If they miss a deadline or fail to register, they’ve committed a new felony. “I had clients who were arrested because they missed deadlines that passed in the middle of a hurricane,” says Maya Ragsdale, a former public defender who is now an attorney for the advocacy group Dream Defenders. Despite all of this, Hobbs completed his probation and paid his fines and restitution. He then attempted to comply with the onerous state and county registration requirements for 22 years, apparently coming up short on two occasions.

Then in January 2020, he was again arrested and charged with “failure to register.” Gaspard says neither he nor Hobbs’s family understands exactly what Hobbs did wrong. Gaspard says that, as far as he knows, Hobbs’s sister’s home, where Hobbs was living, was one of the few parts of the county where sex offenders could reside. In other words, Hobbs hadn’t moved since the last time he registered. So if his sister’s residence was in a restricted area, one would expect he would have been told so when he first registered at her address. It’s also possible that Hobbs missed a deadline to re-register. At worst, he appears to have been arrested for a technical violation of the registry requirements he’d been following for more than 20 years. “He tried his best to get past his offense and live his life,” says Gaspard.

After his arrest, the state added three additional charges of failing to register, though court documents don’t detail what part of the registry requirements he violated. But each count is a felony and comes with a $5,000 bond. Hobbs couldn’t afford that, so he remained locked up.

On March 16, Hobbs’s attorneys won a motion to have him released in response to covid-19. A judge ordered Hobbs released to house arrest, citing his medical conditions, the nature of his original crime and the fact that his only subsequent crimes (failing to register) were administrative.

(Matt Rota for The Washington Post)
The other inmates started banging on the cell door to get a guard’s attention. A guard walked in and repeatedly struck Hobbs’s bed with his walkie-talkie, asking, “Hey! What’s your name? Are you all right?” Again, Hobbs didn’t answer.

But due to what appears to be bureaucratic incompetence, Hobbs was never released. Prisoners ordered released to house arrest must provide the address where they’ll be staying. An office called the Pretrial Services Bureau is then tasked with verifying those addresses. According to Gaspard, Hobbs’s family was told that when the Miami-Dade Pretrial Services Bureau called his sister to verify her address, her phone was disconnected. Gaspard says this isn’t true. He says Hobbs’s sister says she even has a record of the incoming call. She didn’t answer because she didn’t recognize the number, and because she hadn’t been told about her brothers’ pending release, there was no reason for her to be expecting a call. Gaspard says whoever called from the office didn’t leave a voicemail. When I called Hobbs’s sister earlier this month, her phone was working fine.

Defense attorneys consulted for this article said the division of Miami-Dade County Pretrial Services that verifies addresses is notorious for failing to follow up. “I’ve had to call 25 or 30 times to get them to verify a client’s address,” said one defense attorney, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation against current clients. “Sometimes they don’t call at all. But when they do, it’s one call and they’re done. If no one answers, they don’t leave a message. They don’t call back. You really have to get after them.”

That’s consistent with my own efforts to reach the office. I first tried to reach the officer who Hobbs’s advocates say was responsible for verifying his address. I called twice. Both times the phone rang more than a dozen times before I was disconnected. There was no voicemail. I next tried to reach the Pretrial Services Office itself. There, too, my first two attempts resulted in more than a dozen rings before disconnection. On my third try, a receptionist answered and said she’d transfer me to a supervisor. I was on hold for a couple minutes before that call disconnected. On my final try, the phone rang 10 times before a man answered. When I explained why I was calling, he asked for the name of the prisoner I was calling about. I told him it was Charles Hobbs. “Oh. I know what this is about,” he replied. “I’m not going anywhere near that. We can’t talk to journalists, anyway.” He then instructed me to contact the spokesperson for the corrections department. I did, and I left a voicemail on May 8. No one has returned my call.

That failure to follow up would typically be the difference between a stay in jail and a stay at home. Here, it was the difference between life and death.

“Not my problem”

At Metro West, inmates are kept in large cells of 50 to 60 people with dorm-style bunks. Lily Bou of the advocacy group Civil Rights Corps interviewed several of the prisoners who interacted with Hobbs in his final days and hours. Recordings of those interviews have been shared with The Post. The recordings, along with sworn statements from the inmates in a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners in Miami-Dade correctional facilities, paint a grim picture of Charles Hobbs’s final days and show how little those facilities are doing to protect prisoners from a deadly pandemic.

Gregory Arrington met Hobbs in mid-March, when the two were in the same group cell at Metro West. They were trustees together, tasked with collecting trash. According to Arrington’s sworn statement, Hobbs first began feeling sick in early April. On at least three occasions, a nurse came to take his temperature. Arrington writes that he saw the nurse record a fever of over 100 degrees. Hobbs’s condition then deteriorated to the point where he was “too weak to get out of bed,” “had trouble breathing” and had stopped eating.

According to Arrington, on April 27, Hobbs became dizzy and nearly passed out. It was only then that a guard called for a wheelchair — Hobbs was too weak to walk on his own — and took him to the jail’s clinic. Gaspard says Hobbs was examined by a nurse, not a doctor, and after a brief examination, Hobbs was sent outside with the other prisoners for mandatory recreation.

The following day, Arrington says, “I saw Charles was gasping for breath in his bunk, and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head. It looked to me like Charles was unconscious, but his eyes were open.” He alerted a guard, who alerted medical staff. “Charles began shaking violently in his bed,” Arrington continues. “To me, it looked like Charles was having a seizure. The nurses had to hold Charles’s body down to prevent him from falling out of his bunk bed. It was terrifying.” Arrington never saw Hobbs again.

But the jail still didn’t send Hobbs to the hospital. Instead, he was put in cell 2C3, a makeshift cell for prisoners who have tested positive for covid-19. Efrain Garcia was already in cell 2C3 when Hobbs arrived.

In his interview with Bou, Garcia says several dozen inmates around him began getting sick in mid-February. Approximately 50 were then transferred to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, the main jail in Miami-Dade County, which also includes the system’s main medical facility. After about a week, he says, they returned. They were told they had “nothing but a cold.” Soon, others began to get sick, including Garcia. According to Garcia, it was another two months before he and his cellmates were given masks. On April 25, Garcia and the other 47 inmates in his cell were given covid-19 tests. All of them tested positive.

Garcia says he and about 10 other positive prisoners were then moved to 2C3. They weren’t allowed to see a doctor. For the first week or so, there were no guards, either. The jail’s staff would only crack the door and slide their meals inside. The prisoners weren’t provided with soap or disinfectant.

By Garcia’s account, Hobbs was brought to the 2C3 covid-19 cell on April 28. Garcia says Hobbs didn’t eat and barely got up from his bunk. At one point, Garcia and some other prisoners noticed that Hobbs was gasping and contacted a jail official, a man Garcia and other inmates refer to as “the corporal.” Another prisoner, Eric Marinho, says in his sworn statement that the inmates yelled at the corporal, “We need help! He’s dying in here!" According to multiple prisoners, the corporal responded, “That’s not my problem.”

Early the following morning, between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., a few inmates participating in an early-morning Bible study group noticed that Hobbs was again gasping for breath. When they asked if he was okay, he didn’t respond. They started banging on the cell door to get a guard’s attention. A guard walked in and repeatedly struck Hobbs’s bed with his walkie-talkie, asking, “Hey! What’s your name? Are you all right?” Again, Hobbs didn’t answer. According to several prisoners, the guard left, returned and went through the same routine again. He did this three times, in a process that lasted about 10 minutes, before finally radioing for medical staff.

(Matt Rota for The Washington Post)
“I saw Charles was gasping for breath in his bunk, and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head. It looked to me like Charles was unconscious, but his eyes were open.”

Garcia watched in horror as medical staff tried and failed to resuscitate Hobbs. “The day it happened, I went to sleep with tears in my eyes, grabbing my Bible," he said. Nathaniel Brown, another inmate in the cell at the time, said by the time the medical staff arrived, Hobbs "was just dead weight.” He added, “They treat us like they really don’t give a damn. How can you have no mercy for someone when their life is in your hands?”

“My brother wasn’t perfect,” says Hobbs’s sister, who has asked that her name not be published. “He finished high school and went to a top-name college. He was a great cook. He made some mistakes that put him in a tight situation for a lot of years. He damn sure didn’t deserve to be treated so inhumane.”

As of May 4, 191 inmates and 32 staff at Metro West had tested positive. That’s the last report for Metro West, but as of May 11, the county posted that it had tested 1,166 prisoners in all of its jails, of which 481 were positive, an incredible 41 percent positive rate. Still, as of May 11, only about a third of the inmates had been tested. But no one seems to know how many have died. In fact, the advocacy groups learned about Hobbs only because a fellow prisoner saw a description of his death while looking over the shoulder of a corrections officer, then mentioned it in an interview. “We would never have known Charles Hobbs was a covid death if one of our witnesses hadn’t seen that computer screen,” says Ragsdale. The county does not have a public record of fatalities from the virus. “We know of other deaths we think are covid for which we haven’t been able to get any information," adds Ragsdale.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit Ragsdale’s, Bou’s and other advocacy groups have filed against the county is Anthony Swain, a paraplegic with a host of other medical conditions for whom covid-19 would likely be a death sentence.

In his own sworn statement, Swain describes a jail system wholly indifferent to the medical needs of its prisoners. “There are people in here who have AIDS, people who are recently coming out of surgery, people who are elderly. Despite that, there are no measures taken to protect us from new people who circulate through our cell every day. We see people who are coughing, have fevers, and are otherwise ill, but they aren’t tested and we don’t know what they have.” He adds, “A cart nurse who passed out our medication was working in our cell for almost a month. The whole time he was here, he was coughing and sneezing. He finally stopped coming to work, and is now in quarantine," and, “We have people in this unit bleeding, yet we don’t even have bleach. I’ve seen blood on the floor because the supposed cleaning products they give us can’t even clean that up.”

On April 4, federal District Judge Kathleen Williams criticized the conditions at the jail and issued a preliminary injunction ordering it to supply prisoners with soap, masks and other preventative materials, to test staff and inmates, and to require staff to wash their hands regularly. She declined to order the release of prisoners or social distancing guidelines. But even the order to provide soap, masks and testing was overturned this month by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The 2-to-1 majority found that requiring soap, masks, testing and Williams’s other orders would result in “irreparable harm” to the jail and the county, and that “the evidence supports that the [jail officials] are taking the risk of COVID-19 seriously.”

The prisoners tell a different story. Efrain Garcia told Bou, “I don’t know if tomorrow I’m going to be alive. Everybody here is afraid.” Metro West inmate Lavelle Vance told Bou that he, too, hasn’t seen a doctor, despite showing symptoms. “There’s no kind of hope here," he said. “We need help. We need help.” On May 10, five days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit threw out his lawsuit and said Metro West was taking the virus seriously, Anthony Swain tested positive for COVID-19.

Read more:

Radley Balko: Stopping covid-19 behind bars was an achievable moral imperative. We failed.

Jody Kent Lavy: Covid-19 is spreading in jails. Here’s how to safely release those inmates convicted as children.

Radley Balko: A D.C. public defender describes terrible conditions at the city’s jail

Josiah Rich, Mavis Nimoh and Scott Allen: We must release prisoners to lessen the spread of coronavirus

Marilyn Mosby, Carolyn Sufrin and Chris Beyrer: Maryland Gov. Hogan can lead by addressing covid-19 in prisons and jails

Radley Balko: Louisiana public defenders fight to protect clients from coronavirus, even as their offices run out of money

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