Florida inmate William Forrester has served 11 years of a mandatory minimum drug sentence that is no longer on the books, imposed by a judge who thought it was too excessive.
Now he’s one of 67 inmates at Bay Correctional Facility who has tested positive for COVID-19, as of today’s numbers from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).
Forrester, 64, suffers from multiple health issues and had a lung removed due to cancer before his incarceration, putting him at high risk of serious complications from the virus.
“I did try the furlough, but it kept getting rejected,” Forrester writes in an email to Reason. “I hoped it may stop me from contracting COVID-19, but I caught it anyway. I have done 12 long years and now I’m down to 11 months. I had no idea my last year would be so rough. I’ve been pretty sick this past week but I am starting to feel better.”
Forrester’s case is in many ways a microcosm of the problems facing Florida’s prisons. It shows how the drug war created a prison system bloated with elderly inmates serving mandatory minimums; how multiple levels of government failed to substantively address those injustices and declining prison conditions; and how the COVID-19 pandemic has put an exclamation point on all these failures.
“Florida had several options that could have been used to release Mr. Forrester,” says Greg Newburn, director of state policy at the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM. “The Clemency Board could have commuted his sentence, Governor DeSantis could have granted a reprieve, and the Department of Corrections could have furloughed him into the care of a qualified sponsor. Instead, no one did anything, and now Mr. Forrester is sick.”
Reason first profiled Forrester’s case in a 2017 investigation into Florida’s draconian opioid trafficking laws. Legislators passed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking in the late 1990s with the intention of targeting major dealers, but the weight thresholds to trigger the sentences were so low that prosecutors and police predominantly used them to ensnare low-level and first-time drug offenders, who were locked away for years, sometimes decades, for selling a bottle of pills.
Forrester was sentenced in 2009 to a mandatory-minimum 15 years in prison for trafficking oxycodone and obtaining a substance by fraud. In his case, a pharmacist filled a prescription for 120 oxycodone pills. When he came back to fill a second prescription, the pharmacist called the doctor to verify. When the doctor said he did not authorize either prescription, Forrester was arrested for trafficking the meds he had obtained the month before, as well as for forging the current prescription. Despite the trafficking charge, there was no evidence he intended to sell the pills.
At Forrester’s sentencing hearing, the judge had no choice but to sentence him to the mandatory-minimum term. He told Forrester that if drug rehabilitation “was an option, then certainly we would talk about it. But my hands are tied by the law, and I have to sentence you to 15 years, and there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The legislature has said for this particular crime, we prescribe a fixed sentence. It doesn’t give me A, B or C. I’ve only got A.”
“I had no idea such long sentencing laws for not selling pills were even in existence,” Forrester wrote in a 2017 letter to Reason. “I thought ‘drug trafficking’ laws were for people found guilty of huge quantities of drugs such as moving it in boats, planes, trunks of cars, etc.”
The Florida state legislature amended the law in 2014 to raise the thresholds to trigger mandatory trafficking sentences, acknowledging they were far too harsh, but those changes were not retroactive.
As a result, Forrester and hundreds of other Florida inmates are serving sentences that have since been taken off the books. Had he been sentenced under the 2014 thresholds, Forrester would’ve gotten out last year.
Florida lawmakers have introduced bills over the past several years to try and grant retroactive relief to these inmates, but all have failed.
Forrester also applied to have his sentence commuted through the state’s Executive Clemency Board. His petition had the support of the judge who sentenced him to prison.
“At the time of sentencing and even today I believe that the sentence was excessive given the crime, his criminal history, and the involvement of addiction in his life,” Florida Senior Circuit Judge Roger McDonald wrote in a 2018 letter to the Executive Clemency Board.
The board denied the petition.
Because he’s nearing the end of his sentence, Forrester would also be eligible for work release, but because one of his lungs was removed, he’s considered disabled and therefore ineligible.
Forrester applied for a furlough—a temporary release into home confinement. FAMM has called on the FDOC to use its little-known statutory power to temporarily grant furlough to vulnerable inmates, but the FDOC disagrees with FAMM’s interpretation of the statute.
The FDOC first told Forrester he had filled out the wrong form. On his second try, he was told medical furloughs were only available to those on work release, which of course he didn’t qualify for because of his medical conditions.
“I want to let you know that we just got locked down in our cells, we are quarantined,” Forrester wrote in a July 4 email to an advocacy group for incarcerated people. “Someone who lives in here is sick. The inevitable has just happened.”
FDC reported the first case of COVID-19 at Bay Correctional Facility on July 8.
Prisoners are 5.5 times more likely to get COVID-19 and three times more likely to die from it, according to a study published this week in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. States have released more than 33,000 incarcerated people in response to the threat of the virus, according to UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars tracking project.
However, Florida has only released three inmates under a “conditional medical release” statute, which only allows inmates to be released if they are about to die or become “permanently incapacitated.” Unlike in some other states, FDOC Secretary Mark Inch does not have the discretionary authority to release inmates.
In the meantime, 2,632 inmates and 885 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the latest numbers from the FDOC, and 29 inmates have died.
“We’re hopeful [Forrester] will recover,” Newburn says, “and we hope Florida’s political leaders will pause, reflect, and reconsider the wisdom of not releasing anyone while COVID wreaks havoc inside our state prison system.”