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National Guard tests inmates and employees at the Clarke County Jail for COVID-19

Sheriff Ira Edwards Jr. (l) observes as members of the National Guard test jail employees for COVID-19

By Joe Johnson

Members of the Georgia National Guard recently conducted free and voluntary COVID-19 testing at the county jail for all Clarke County Sheriff’s Office employees and inmates who wanted to be tested.

The tests were requested “out of an abundance of caution, and not in response to any concerns of documented exposure to COVID-19 or for any symptomatic individuals," Sheriff Ira Edwards Jr, said,

The tests were conducted at the jail on May 15, and the results were released on Friday.

According to the sheriff’s office, 29 out of 145 employees volunteered to be tested, 27 of whom tested negative and two of whom had inconclusive test results.

Out of the 235 prisoners at the jail, 102 volunteered for testing, resulting in 97 testing negative and five tests that were inconclusive.

Clarke County Chief Deputy Jimps Cole explained that the tests were done on a voluntary basis after consulting with the county attorney and Human Resources Department, which advised that the sheriff’s office had no authority to mandate medical procedures for employees and inmates.

"This is excellent news for our community,” Cole said. “It shows we are taking the best approaches and following the best practices” during the pandemic.

Edwards said, “We would like to thank all of the judges, the District Attorney’s Office, the Solicitors General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and our own inmate medical service provider, Armor Correctional Health Services, for their continued teamwork in keeping our inmate population at a manageable level during this pandemic. We are grateful for their efforts in keeping our jail operations safe during this crisis. 

Georgia National Guard personnel set up a COVID-19 testing site at the Clarke County Jail

While some jails and prisons  -- due to inmates being housed within close proximity to each other -- have been hotspots for the coronavirus, which causes the potentially fatal COVID-19 disease, 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 Cole.

Recent modeling by the American Civil Liberties Union and academic researchers that was released last month 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.

As of Saturday, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. was 97,036. 

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 was illustrated in Ohio, where more than 1,800 prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution recently 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.

At the local detention facility, 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 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.

Cole 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 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, as opposed to the 235 prisoners who were housed at the facility when the testing was performed last week.

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.”

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