By Joe Johnson
The Clarke County Jail is uniquely positioned to be among the larger jails in the U.S. that has not yet been greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic that had killed more than 68,000 Americans as of Monday.
America’s jails and prisons in particular have been referred to by experts as Petri dishes where the coronavirus can rapidly spread among inmates who live in close quarters.
When released from custody, symptomatic prisoners can spread the disease into the community.
But the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, which administers the county jail off Lexington Road in Athens, took early precautionary measures that may have prevented prisoners and deputies from contracting the virus that causes the deadly COVID-19 disease, according to Clarke County Chief Deputy Sheriff Jimps Cole.
Recent modeling by the American Civil Liberties Union and academic researchers that was released two weeks ago forecasted that mass incarceration in the U.S. could almost double the number of coronavirus deaths, with jails acting as incubators of the disease and spreading an additional 100,000 fatalities across the country.
The analysis found that unless immediate action was taken to reduce jail populations, a terrible price would be paid.
Just how easily coronavirus can spread behind bars is illustrated in Ohio, where more than 1,800 prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive – 73 percent of the prison population.
In Cook county jail in Chicago, almost 400 inmates have tested positive and six have died. About 225 staff have also tested positive and one correctional officer has died.
According to Cole, the local sheriff’s office last week requested that the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency to provide tests for Athens jail inmates.
The tests have yet to be scheduled, but Cole said the jail has been following the following precautions to protect the wellbeing of jail staff, prisoners, and the community at large:
Housing units are mopped twice per day and hard surfaces are cleaned with a disinfectant 4-5 times per day, up from twice daily.
The jail’s lobby that used to be thoroughly cleaned a few The jail’s prisoner intake area is thoroughly cleaned at least 3 times each day, up from twice a day.
The lobby is closed to the public, except for inmate bonding purposes, attorney-inmate legal meetings, and inmate property exchanges. Inmate visitations have been cancelled.
Social distancing among jail personnel whenever possible while performing their duties.
Personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves and gowns, is continuously supplied.
Each employee is required to wear a mask and gloves when in direct contact with inmates or arrestees. This directive includes those times when inmates are being transported in vehicles.
Employees are urged to practice good hygiene through frequent handwashing, keeping hands away from face, coughing into elbows, and maintaining sanitized work stations.
As of Monday, no jail employee has tested positive for COVID-19, according to Cole.
The chief deputy said that the following precautions for inmates have been taken:
Upon entry into the jail, arrestees are asked a series of questions relating to their wellbeing and recent travels. If an arrestee admits to any symptoms or appears symptomatic, nursing staff is immediately called to intake for further assessment. A decision is then made to accept the arrestee or refuse admission pending further medical screening at the hospital.
If an arrestee has recently traveled to any COVID-19 hotspots or overseas, then they are quarantined if unable to make bond.
Every arrestee undergoes a temperature check before admission into the jail’s intake area, and the jail has negative-pressure holding cells for isolating inmates who are symptomatic or for other concerns related to COVID-19.
According to Cole, three prisoners who appear to be symptomatic were tested for coronavirus, but no tests have returned as positive.
Masks have been ordered for all inmates, and shipment is pending, Cole said.
Since visitations have been cancelled, indigent inmates are allowed a free 10- minute phone call twice a week.
After Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton on March 14 when issued a statewide judicial emergency order, Cole said that jail staff “has worked tirelessly with judges and attorneys to identify inmates with low risk of reoffending, and inmates who are more vulnerable to health problems for release from jail.”
“This effort has resulted in the release of approximately 130 inmates by altering their bonds or sentencing. Judges have been overly accommodating to assess any new arrestees for amending bonds to keep our inmate Jail count as low as possible,” according to Cole.
Prior to the coronavirus, the jail had an average daily prisoner population of 350 to 400, according to Cole, who said there were 226 prisoners on Monday.
To further contain the spread of coronavirus, judges have been conducting court hearings remotely with the existing courthouse-jail video conferencing system.
“This system allows inmates to remain at the jail for court hearings and has significantly reduced the need to transport inmates to the courthouse, Cole said.
The chief deputy said that arrestees who cannot make bond are placed in the jail Orientation Unit and remain there until they can make bond or for 14 days to keep them away from the general inmate population. Normally, arrestees are kept in the Orientation Unit for 72 hours before they are given a permanent housing assignment.
The inmate medical provider, Armor Correctional, has taken new precautions to protect its employees and prisoners, according to Cole.
“They are now required to take their temperature before reporting to work.” he said. “They are also required to wear masks and gloves when in contact with inmates. Armor Medical also assisted jail staff with educating inmates on social distancing and practicing good hygiene.”