Officials: Testing, fewer inmates help limit COVID-19 at lnd. jails
"Anybody coming from any kind of facility, whether it's from state or local jail, we treat them as if they're positive the entire time," an official said
By Marek Mazurek
South Bend Tribune
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. — With minimal ability to physically distance and a large number of people coming in and out, jails nationwide have been hot spots for the coronavirus.
But administrators at local jails have not seen large clusters of cases, and they cite testing and a reduction in inmate populations for curbing the spread of the virus.
Since April, the St. Joseph County Jail has had five inmates test positive for coronavirus, though there are no current cases and the five inmates have since recovered or are no longer in the jail.
Troy Warner, an attorney for the St. Joseph County Police Department, said the jail has a specific protocol for handling COVID-19 cases, in which inmates are put into isolation and tested by jail medical staff.
“With all of them, they’re in medical, we monitor them. Towards the end of the 14-day period, we run a test and then we want to run a second test,” Warner said. “Once we’ve got two negative tests in a row, then we’ll return them to general population.”
Two of the positive cases came from local arrests. One of the inmates who tested positive was released on bond before the test results came back, but the St. Joseph County Health Department has followed up with the person, Warner said.
The other three positive cases were transfers from state prisons — two from Westville Correctional and one from Miami Correctional — which has prompted St. Joseph County police to use extra precautions when transporting inmates between facilities.
“Anybody coming from any kind of facility, whether it’s from state or local jail, we treat them as if they’re positive the entire time,” Warner said.
LaPorte County Sheriff John Boyd also said the handling of transfers from state prisons is a concern.
“We’ve been cutting down on a lot of those and transferring only the most violent of offenders or if the judge has a court order,” Boyd said. “We try to reach out in advance to the facility where the individual is being held and asking if they’ve been observed, if they’re sympathetic and if they’ve been tested.”
As of Wednesday, the Indiana Department of Corrections reported that 200 inmates and 110 staff members at Westville had tested positive for the coronavirus, with six inmate deaths.
Warner and Boyd also attributed the lack of widespread cases in local jails to recent reductions in inmate populations. Since March, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in the area have released some nonviolent offenders awaiting trial. Police officers in St. Joseph and LaPorte counties are also citing and releasing people suspected of nonviolent offenses, as opposed to booking them in county jails.
Warner said the St. Joseph County Jail currently has 424 inmates, which is down from 540 in late March. Having fewer inmates allows the jail to house one or two people in a bunk room, as opposed to three or four when the jail is near capacity.
There are 276 inmates at the LaPorte County jail compared to 311 in March, according to Boyd.
Local activists also attribute the lack of widespread coronavirus cases to the decision to release some nonviolent inmates in the early stages of the pandemic.
“We are happy with the decisions and the proactive steps that collectively our sheriff, prosecutors and judges took,” said Jeff Walker, a prisoner advocate working with Faith in Indiana. “They made some really good decisions and some really quick decisions that are helping us currently.”
Capt. Michael Culp of the Elkhart County Police Department said he was unaware of any positive tests in the Elkhart County Jail. As of Thursday, the jail had 569 inmates, down from about 800 in late March.
Marshall County Sheriff Matt Hassell said the county jail has had no positive tests for inmates or staff and that the jail is continuing to quarantine new arrivals for 14 days before moving them into the general population.
©2020 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)