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Quick Take: Why proper jail management should not be forgotten during a pandemic

Calif. Sheriff Don Barnes addresses current issues regarding custodial operations in jails as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold

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Infection control policies and procedures can become a difficult undertaking in jails, especially during a pandemic.


Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department Sheriff-Coroner Don Barnes has seen and managed multiple disasters throughout his 30-year career.

However, fires, earthquakes and floods do not hold a candle to how the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging first responders.

“Unlike an incident that might be driven in one region, this is everybody across the nation and around the world trying to address the same incident at the same time,” Barnes said during FirstNet’s “Coping with COVID-19: Best practices for law enforcement” webinar.

The webinar, which included presentations from four U.S. police leaders, discussed what COVID-19 practices are working, which ones are not and lessons leaders have identified as they continue to battle the outbreak in their communities.

The pandemic, Barnes said, has created numerous logistical challenges for first responders. During his presentation, Barnes discussed current issues regarding custodial operations in jails.

Memorable quotes on custodial issues in jails

Infection control policies and procedures can become a difficult undertaking in jails, especially during a pandemic. In late January, Barnes said they had already changed their staffing and deployment model department-wide before an incident or exposure occurred in Orange County.

Having ongoing plans and contingencies in place, Barnes said, was key as the pandemic unfolded.

Here are five memorable quotes from Barnes’ presentation.

“Jails are difficult to manage. Without having the foresight to get out ahead of it, have good contingencies in place, do all the modeling, get everybody in the queue as best you can and ready to go on all these action plans is key.”

“If you wait until the issue emerges that you must address and start to address, then you will be at least 24 to 72 hours behind the curve. That is not fast enough based on the threat that this virus has presented to us.”

“It’s not just the inmate to inmate risk; it’s the inmate to staff or staff to inmate risk that you’re trying to mitigate.”

“You have to look externally to how you’re trying to mitigate the risk to prevent the stress that you may create by not managing the health issues within the jail. At some point, if it moves beyond your capacity to contain within the jail, you may have to move these people offsite or into a hospital setting … then you’re adding additional burdens onto the medical profession.”

“We have a large homeless population in Orange County. About one in five of the 5,000 inmates I have are self-declared as homeless. When you start to release these people, where do they go? Does that system get negatively impacted through the homeless sheltering system or are you adding an additional burden onto the operations of the county?”

Top takeaways on how to lead during a crisis

The goal of FirstNet’s webinar was to share insights and best practices. Jail management, according to Barnes, should not be forgotten.

Here are four key takeaways from Barnes’ presentation:

1. Leave your rank at the door and be strategic in your thoughts

During a crisis, Barnes implored leaders to focus on roles, responsibilities and relationships.

“I have never operated on rank,” he said. “Not that I’m disrespectful of it, but I’ve always focused on roles, responsibilities and relationships. In this environment, you have to leave your rank at the door.”

And, if leaders don’t, Barnes cautioned that they would stifle the necessary dialogue to hear back from individuals who might have something important to say.

“If you are in a position of influence, bring it back center and be strategic in your thoughts,” he said. “Be very conscious of those who are on the frontline with you and meeting their needs.”

2. Determine what (and who) is mission-critical

In late January, Barnes said the department went to a strict platoon schedule.

“It’s not tactical staffing where you cancel everybody’s days off, and just make sure you have an abundance of personnel,” he said. “It was putting people into strict platoons. Nobody can operate outside of that platoon. Nobody can cross-contaminate; they can’t work overtime on opposite ends of the week.”

The schedule, he said, has allowed the department to create a contingent staff in case they have to take an entire shift out of one of their central functions.

“If it wasn’t mission-critical to deliver services to the department, jails being one of those, we scaled back,” Barnes said.

3. Continue to pre-screen before entering or operating in jails

Along with their dispatch protocols, Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s staff continue to ask preparatory questions before anyone enters the jail, including inquiries about exposure and potential COVID-19 symptoms.

“We pre-screen people at the car before they enter the facility for temperature and other vital signs that might show an indicator that somebody might be symptomatic of COVID-19,” Barnes said.

Even with the best practices, Barnes admitted his chief concern is having someone come through that may not be showing symptoms but is later determined contagious.

“We did stop all of what I considered non-essential,” he said. “I was concerned about the mass gathering that takes place in our jails when people are staging for visits, so we stopped contact visits.”

Despite the department’s best efforts, Barnes said they have confirmed COVID-19 positive cases within their inmate population.

4. Focus on mitigation efforts inside jails

In Southern California, most jails, according to Barnes, are beyond containment.

“It’s out and now it’s being spread throughout the communities,” he said. “If I’m looking at this through the risk mitigation lens that we oftentimes must work with, my issues are capacity. At what time do I reach the capacity where I can no longer mitigate the health risk within my jail, even though I’m well below my maximum capacity?”

Barnes added that he has not been granted the precautionary or preventative measures that would allow him to release low-risk inmates.

“We know that we have the risk of this health issue with COVID-19, but it’s also coupled with the risk that’s already manifested within operating a complex jail environment,” he said.

The department’s at-risk population includes inmates who are age 65 or older and those with pre-existing health conditions.

“How do I mitigate that within the construct of the jail while they’re in my custody versus the external risk if I move toward releasing individuals into the public?” Barnes questioned. “It becomes even more of a challenge when you’re looking at internal risk – not just to the inmate populations – but to your employees. You must keep them safe.”

Learn more about maintaining operations during COVID-19

All leaders must rise to the occasion while dealing with a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

To learn more about how departments are continuing to operate during the pandemic, see these Police1 articles:

Read the next article in the series: Public safety technology issues and opportunities during a pandemic

Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of and, is the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.