'They're going to eat them': Ala. jail refuses to give inmates masks

In addition to citing safety concerns about masks for inmates, an official said he doubts inmates would want to wear them


By Ashley Remkus
Alabama Media Group

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — When Courtney Moore was arrested and taken to the Madison County jail, he was wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But the Huntsville police officers who took him into custody weren’t wearing masks, Moore said, and neither were the employees inside the county jail.

A spokesman for the sheriff's office cited safety concerns among the reasons inmates aren't allowed masks. (Photo/AL.com via TNS)
A spokesman for the sheriff's office cited safety concerns among the reasons inmates aren't allowed masks. (Photo/AL.com via TNS)

Once Moore, a 33-year-old Huntsville man, was booked into the jail, he said the staff confiscated his mask. Neither Moore nor the other inmates were given masks or allowed to wear their own, he said.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Moore, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges at a protest in Huntsville on June 28. “I was exposed to an unsafe condition. I think that is very, very irresponsible of them, knowing how important masks are, to continue to arrest people and put their health at risk.”

When Moore was arrested, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, had not reported any cases inside the facility. But late last week, Sheriff Kevin Turner confirmed in a news release that a jailer had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Jail employees, the sheriff said, would now be required to wear masks. A Huntsville police spokesman this week said officers are also now wearing masks. However, in most instances, Madison County inmates still aren’t being given masks or allowed to wear their own.

Brent Patterson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, cited safety concerns among the reasons inmates aren’t allowed masks. Inmates could harm themselves or others with masks that have metal nose pieces, he said, while other masks that don’t have metal pieces could be tied together to make ropes.

“You give them face masks (with) a nose piece — metal pieces in them — they’re going to eat them,” he said. “They’re going to swallow them.”

If that happened, Patterson said, the public would question why inmates were given potentially dangerous weapons — face masks.

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Outside the walls of the jail, a coronavirus health order now requires most people in Madison County to wear face coverings in public. That order doesn’t appear to apply to the jail, which houses inmates arrested by the sheriff’s office, Huntsville and Madison police and other agencies in the county.

“Jails will have, as part of their mitigation plans for COVID 19, their own guidance regarding the wearing of face coverings or masks,” said Madison County Health Officer Karen Landers, who issued the local masking order.

Public health experts recommend hand washing or sanitizing, wearing face coverings and physical distancing to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19, which has killed more than 1,000 Alabamians and infected more than 48,000 people in the state.

Inside jails, physical distancing is difficult if not impossible, but masks provide a layer of protection.

In some of Alabama’s other large counties, both inmates and jail staff are wearing masks inside lockup.

In Mobile County, where a COVID-19 outbreak happened in April and May, the county jail is complying with a local mask ordinance, a spokeswoman told AL.com in an email.

“All corrections officers have masks as well as inmates,” said Lori Miles, a spokeswoman for the Mobile County sheriff’s office.

In the Jefferson County jail in Birmingham, masks are available, though not required, for inmates to wear in their cell blocks, said Sgt. Joni Money, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. Money said inmates are required to wear masks when they attend court, medical visits and at other times when they will be in contact with people with whom they aren’t normally housed. Jail staff members are wearing masks in accordance with the county’s ordinance requiring face coverings, she said.

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In addition to citing safety concerns about masks for inmates, Patterson also said he doubts inmates would want to wear them.

“If we give every inmate in that facility a mask, they’re not gonna wear them,” he said. “They’re gonna be on the floor. They’re not gonna be used.”

Moore and a local woman who was arrested during the coronavirus pandemic said they would have worn masks in the jail if they had been allowed to do so.

Claire Tolomei, a 28-year-old from Huntsville, said she was wearing a cloth mask when she was arrested at a protest on June 3. But while she was being booked into the jail on a misdemeanor charge, a jailer confiscated her mask. None of the jailers or police officers were wearing face coverings, she said.

Patterson said the jail has masks for inmates but is using them for those with the greatest need for protection and risk of exposure. Inmates wear masks to court and while working around the jail, he said.

Moore and Tolomei quickly bonded out of jail and were never sent to general population, but both said they were held in rooms with groups of other people, where they were not kept six feet apart.

In setting policies on masks and other COVID-19 procedures, Patterson said, the jail is following the advice and guidance of Southern Health Partners, the private Tennessee company that’s contracted to provide medical care for inmates.

“And we feel that with our health care provider, they know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re the professionals on health care.”

Jennifer Hairsine, the CEO of Southern Health Partners, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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After Moore and Tolomei were released on bond, they each had to attend court hearings the next morning. At Huntsville Municipal Court, located at the opposite end of the justice complex on Wheeler Avenue, they were required to wear masks.

“It’s like inside the walls of the jail, they pretend the virus doesn’t exist,” Tolomei said.

Patterson said the jail is taking the coronavirus seriously by cleaning, sanitizing and isolating inmates who are sick, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said inmates who had work-release jobs before the pandemic are now spending their days cleaning the facility.

All inmates get cleaning materials each day, including supplies to wash their hands, he said.

Tolomei said while she and several other arrestees were waiting to be booked into the jail on the night of June 3, a staff member gave them hand sanitizer. But between that time and when she was fingerprinted, Tolomei said she used the bathroom and wasn’t allowed to properly clean her hands before touching the fingerprinting screen that was used by the other arrestees. Patterson said that was untrue.

Tolomei and Moore expressed concerns about the health screening process they went through when they were booked into the jail.

Nurses were wearing masks and checked Tolmei’s temperature, she said. But Tolomei said she doesn’t remember being asked any health questions specifically related to COVID-19.

Neither does Moore. He said the staff didn’t ask whether he had been exposed to the virus, traveled recently or experienced symptoms of COVID-19.

Patterson said he believes it’s because of the steps the sheriff’s office and Southern Health Partners are taking that none of the inmate population has tested positive for the coronavirus. Patterson was unsure whether any inmates had been tested for the virus, but he said test kits are available if needed.

“We’re doing everything we’re supposed to do,” Patterson said. “We’re going above and beyond. We’re utilizing every available resource known to man to combat this.”

But Moore and Tolomei said there is more that can be done: Inmates should be wearing masks.

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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