By the time prison officials told William Forrester he had COVID-19, he’d already lost his sense of taste and smell. The persistent headaches, body tremors and diarrhea had already begun.
On his worst days, his stomach cramps were so bad he couldn’t stand, his back pain so severe he couldn’t sit up to eat. He said he had to ask a fellow inmate to scoop coffee for him because his hands trembled so badly.
One day, he found himself lying on the shower floor as he struggled to catch his breath. His head felt like it was filled with air. This is particularly troubling for Forrester, a 63-year-old who lost one lung nearly two decades ago to cancer.
Forrester has spent more than a decade in a Florida state prison for faking opioid prescriptions for himself during a years-long addiction to painkillers following a lung operation.
His 15-year sentence was a product of mandatory minimum laws crafted years ago to fight the state’s drug epidemic. Nationwide, mandatory minimums require judges to hand down predetermined and often lengthy sentences for certain crimes, many of which are non-violent drug offenses. But advocates and legal experts say the harsh sentences treated those addicted to drugs, like Forrester, as if they were violent drug kingpins.
Less than a year away from freedom, imprisoned under laws that have since been invalidated, Forrester fears he’ll die before he is free.
“I hope I’m not doing a death sentence,” he said.
In the federal system, more than 7,500 prisoners have been moved out of prison after Attorney General William Barr ordered officials to transfer elderly and vulnerable inmates to home confinement. Among those who have been allowed to serve the rest of their sentences under house arrest amid coronavirus fears were high-profile criminals such as President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
But critics say the federal Bureau of Prisons has been slow to implement Barr’s directives and still has left other nonviolent but less connected prisoners behind bars.
In the case of Forrester, a state prisoner, he applied for a furlough or a temporary release, but his request was denied.
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Forrester is not alone
There are many like Forrester in Florida’s criminal justice system.
A 2019 report from the state Department of Corrections showed that nearly 14,000 prisoners – 14% of the prison population – are serving time for drug offenses. The report does not distinguish violent prisoners from the nonviolent ones, or inmates serving time for opioid-related crimes from those who trafficked cocaine or heroin.
But a government report found that prosecution of opioid-related offenses led to a dramatic uptick in prison population from 2006 to 2011. In fiscal year 2010-2011 alone, 1,200 prisoners were serving time for opioid-related crimes; 81% had no previous drug offenses and 65% needed substance abuse treatments, according to the report by Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
In the federal system, mandatory minimum sentences have dropped significantly since the 1990s, although they continue to result in long punishments for thousands of federal inmates. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, nearly 20,000 federal cases in 2019 involved mandatory minimum punishments. A large majority of which – more than 70% – involved drug trafficking offenses.
Incarcerated with COVID-19
Forrester tested positive for COVID-19 on July 13. He’s doing better now and assumes he’s negative, though he hasn’t been retested.
Still, in the close quarters of a prison, he fears getting the virus again is inevitable. The possibility of reinfection, experts have said, is real. Forrester has heard of other prisoners who died of COVID-19 and asks himself: How many times can I catch the virus and survive?
So far, 340 prisoners at Bay Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility in Panama City, Florida, where Forrester is incarcerated, have tested positive.
Of the more than 95,000 prisoners in Florida, 15,500 or about 16% have COVID-19 – an infection rate far exceeding the federal prison system’s.
The Florida Department of Corrections said it has suspended visitation, limited transfers between facilities, and staggered meal times to allow for social distancing at dining areas to stem the spread of the virus. Symptomatic prisoners are placed in medical isolation, and officials conduct contact tracing for every positive case, the department said.
GEO Group, a private corporation that operates Bay Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility and a few other prisons in Florida, said it has started mass COVID-19 testing, distributed face masks to inmates and asked staffers to self-quarantine if they had contact with other employees with coronavirus.
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Not the ‘quintessential drug trafficker’
Forrester was convicted in 2009 for trafficking 14 grams or more of oxycodone and obtaining drugs by fraud. Although there was no evidence that Forrester sold drugs, the weight of the pills triggered a drug trafficking charge – punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years.
Under Florida law, had Forrester sold 200 grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, he would’ve been sentenced to just seven years. Such was the result of laws passed to crack down on drug traffickers that have since ensnared those addicted to drugs.
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“The quintessential drug trafficker that the legislature had in mind is a ‘thug,’ running around and shooting people in the neighborhood,” said Janet Ferris, a retired Florida judge. “The reality in most communities is it’s not.”
Acknowledging that sentencing laws had gone too far, the Florida legislature in 2014 raised the threshold weights that would trigger mandatory sentences. Advocates heralded the change as a “common sense” law that would cut the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison for lengthy sentences.
But the law isn’t retroactive and bills to make it retroactive have so far failed. Had Forrester been convicted after the law was passed, he would’ve been sentenced to seven years. He would’ve been out by now.
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Harsh sentencing laws are not unique to Florida, although the state has increasingly become an outlier for having stringent mandatory minimum sentences, said Nancy Daniels, of the Florida Public Defender Association.
Judges, faced with defendants like Forrester, have no choice but to impose lengthy sentences they didn’t believe were fair. The judge who sentenced Forrester to 15 years acknowledged as much.
“We get the addicted, and we get the organized crime, all threated the same under the wording of the Legislature,” Judge Roger McDonald said during Forrester’s sentencing hearing in December 2009, according to court transcripts. “But since the Legislature is the Legislature and the Court is the Court, we have to enforce the laws, and we’re stuck with them, and we can’t carve out exceptions that don’t exist.”
Ferris said she often felt helpless when she had to face defendants in her courtroom, many of whom were young, first-time offenders.
“I did not have the opportunity in many instances to do what I thought was in the interest of justice. And that is a really, really troubling feeling,” she said. “When people come into the courtroom and say, ‘Judge, I’m asking for justice’ and you know what they’re saying is correct … To say to someone, ‘I’m sorry I can’t do justice in this case because the legislature has enacted a mandatory sentencing law, I have to follow that.'”
A life of pain and addiction
In 2002, as he was visiting his grandmother in Bradenton, Fla., Forrester received sobering news. There were cancerous tumors in his left lung and he would likely die, he remembered his doctor telling him on the phone.
Multiple surgeries to remove his lung seemed to have stretched his life, but he spent the next few years in and out of the hospital. Several visits were because of pneumonia. That’s on top of a litany of other health problems: chronic headaches, chest and lower back pain, sleep apnea, strokes and panic attacks. He had more surgeries to fix chronic spine issues.
All the while, he said, he was prescribed huge doses of pain killers.
He’d spent much of his working years in telecommunications, first as a repairman in Florida, then as a pipeline controller in Oklahoma, then back to Florida as a dispatcher. When his addiction got worse, he said he relied on disability benefits to help make ends meet.
As his health problems worsened, so did his addiction. He was often at doctors’ offices and pain clinics, receiving prescriptions for dozens, if not hundreds of milligrams of various opioid medications, including MS Contin, methadone pills, oxycodone, morphine, hydromorphine, muscle relaxants and Marinol for his loss of appetite.
“I was given hydrocodones by the hundreds,” he said, referring to refillable prescriptions for 100 pills. “I soon realized that out of all the other life-threatening problems I had gone through, I was now in the middle of the most deadly, a big dependence on and addiction to opioids.”
A pain management doctor testified at Forrester’s sentencing hearing that some of the doses Forrester had been prescribed were too much. The morphine dose Forrester had been getting from another doctor “was a little bit high,” Dr. Gwinn Murray testified, according to court transcripts.
The last time Murray saw Forrester, Forrester asked for an increase in his oxycodone prescription because his pain had not gone away. Murray, who believed patients should rely less on medication and more on other means to deal with their pain, denied the request, according to transcripts.
After his medications were cut back, Forrester said he began faking prescriptions. The less drugs he got, the more he felt he needed them, and the more he resorted to illegal means to get them. The more drugs he got, the worse his life became.
Twice, Forrester woke up on life support after an accidental overdose. Other times, he said he woke up on his couch as medics were administering a shot of Narcan to reverse the effect of the drugs he’d taken.
“My whole personality changed,” he said. “I no longer knew myself, and all that mattered was feeding this addiction that had control over me.”
A health issue or a criminal justice issue?
Law enforcement officials, including prosecutors and sheriffs, have opposed changes to mandatory minimum sentences, concerned that easing punishments could lead to rising crime rates and the spread of drugs in communities.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said mandatory minimums provide consistency in punishments and avoid instances in which sentences for the same crimes vary from judge to judge or county to county.
“Mandatory minimums are designed to provide the appropriate consequences for people that are selling drugs and trafficking drugs,” said Gualtieri, immediate past president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
Still, Gualtieri said drug laws “were never intended and should not have encompassed people who were addicts and users.”
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In Broward County, prosecutors have started easing sentences for several defendants convicted of opioid trafficking. Citing the changes the legislature made in 2014, prosecutors have recommended reduced prison sentences for two dozen defendants. Nineteen people have been released, and four are scheduled to be set free in the next four years, said Broward Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus. Another defendant died before his release papers were processed.
“We believe it was an issue of fundamental fairness to initiate a review of these cases and reduce the sentences when appropriate,” Marcus said in a statement.
One problem in Florida is the lack of a cohesive vision for what the criminal justice system should look like, said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg.
“The real question is whether you’re going to use data and research to make decisions, or whether you’re going to trust that the legislature of the past always got it right,” said Brandes, who’s been leading the effort to change sentencing laws and has been calling for giving judges more discretion. “Fundamentally, should we treat addiction as a health issue or a criminal justice issue?”
Long prison sentences for such offenders does more harm than good, a belief that Brandes said Republicans and Democrats should share.
“Criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Democrats come to it from a social justice side. Republicans come to it from a public safety and fiscal conservatism side.”
‘I dream about the day I walk up to my front door’
Forrester remembers clearly the day he was convicted by a jury. He thought he was about to cry as officers escorted him out of the courtroom, but the tears didn’t come. When he was finally alone, sitting on a floor in a holding cell, they did.
“I felt like my heart had totally been crushed,” he said. “I prayed to Jesus to please help me what to know, what to do next.”
Years later, McDonald, the judge who sentenced Forrester, asked the state’s Executive Clemency Board to release him early.
“At the time of the 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,” McDonald wrote in a 2018 letter to the board.
Had it not been for mandatory sentencing laws, McDonald said he would’ve imposed a far more lenient sentence: three years in prison, two years on probation and drug treatment.
The Florida Commission on Offender Review declined to comment on Forrester’s clemency application, saying the information is confidential. The commission publishes a database of people who have been granted clemency; Forrester’s name is not in the database.
It seemed to Forrester, “no one is listening.”
“If they are listening,” he said, “then they just don’t care.”
Forrester says he spends his days reading the Bible, playing games he bought for his tablet provided by the prison, and exchanging emails with a longtime friend with whom he will live after he’s released. In the mornings, he meditates and prays. Over the years, he’s gathered about a dozen certificates, including several from dog training programs that allowed prisoners to become trained handlers and another after completing a substance abuse program.
His symptoms have abated, but the fear of dying before seeing the outside of a prison wall, hasn’t.
He looks forward to going back home to Orlando, to his pets that are still alive and to a friend who has “stuck with me all these years.”
“I dream about the day I walk up to my front door,” he said, “and go inside where I can feel safe again.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Justice and legal affairs reporter Kristine Phillips on Twitter @bykristinep.
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