Coronavirus in jails

Although the first positive COVID-19 case in an East Texas jail was reported this past week, area sheriffs say they are receiving fewer inmates and have increased screening procedures to mitigate spread of the virus within their facilities’ populations and staffs.

Many of the adjustments the jails have made were suggested from agencies such as the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the governor’s office and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s been a wild ride as far as jails are concerned,” Rusk County Sheriff Jeff Price said. “We’ve just been looking every day at our emails to see what is the newest thing to come out and how we’re going to administer a new directive.”

On Thursday, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office announced that one of its jail inmates tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate was transported from a hospital to a special cell in Smith County under an agreement between the two jails.

Like other such facilities, the Gregg jail is following its written mitigation plan under a March 18 directive that has been forwarded to the jail commission, said Sheriff Maxey Cerliano.

As part of that plan, Gregg County — which has no “negative pressure cells” that prevent the spread of illness from cell to cell — agreed with Smith County to take inmates with a communicable disease such as COVID-19 to the jail in Tyler, which has two of the special cells.

A negative pressure cell is a room that has ventilation that is depressurized, meaning it uses negative pressure to allow air to flow into the room but not out of it.

Smith County’s needs take precedence, so if both the special cells are later needed, Gregg County must take other steps within its plan, Cerliano said.

Under the plan, the first two positively diagnosed inmates will be housed in Smith County.

“If the positive inmate count reaches three, then the Gregg County Marvin A. Smith Facility outside of Kilgore will be depopulated and transformed into a medical facility,” Cerliano said. “This facility has a capacity of 40 inmates. The facility will be staffed by Gregg and Smith County personnel. A staffing plan has been prepared and is currently under review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.”

In accordance with the March 18 mitigation plan, everyone brought to the jail is screened in the sally port area before entry, and newly booked inmates are placed on a 14-day quarantine before they are placed in the general population.

Any inmate infected with an illness that has not been diagnosed as COVID-19 is isolated, he said, and the jail has taken steps to reduce the contact between prisoners and the civilian population.

The Gregg jail has suspended outside work crews who have performed duties for local nonprofit groups and other entities.

Inmate visitation also has been suspended, Cerliano said, but an agreement with phone vendor NCIC is supplying free five-minute phone calls for each inmate in order to offset the lack of visitation.

“We have postponed all non-emergent outside medical appointments,” he said. “All jail tours are suspended to outside people. Anyone with a (100.4-degree temperature) will be refused and referred for medical clearance at a hospital medical facility. An arrestee that displays fever, cough or difficulty breathing will be given a head-to-toe assessment.

“There is a procedure for inmates to contact and request medical assistance,” the sheriff said.

Because of law enforcement limiting who is booked into the Gregg jail, the facility is seeing fewer than 10 new inmates daily compared with as many as 50 new inmates on some days before the mitigation plan, Cerliano said.

Cerliano said the jail had 558 inmates Wednesday. That compares with 714 on March 1, according to the jail commission. The facility has 916 total beds.

Like in Smith County, several inmates considered minimum-custody and nonviolent who were in the Gregg County Jail were released last month as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases began to rise across the area, he said.

Upshur County Jail

Upshur County Sheriff Larry Webb said the steps taken at his jail in Gilmer are “very consistent” to what other county jails are doing.

His jail also is seeing reduced population and intake as it does its part to prevent potential spread of COVID-19.

“There’s not really been mandates but suggestions from the jail commission on how to handle situations here, and the counties are following those … and I think all of the counties here in East Texas have been following those recommendations coming down from the CDC and the jail commission,” Webb said.

His biggest reminder to residents and the public is to follow the instructions from local government leaders the best that they can “and know that the Upshur County Sheriff’s Office is up and fully operational, and we’ll handle those needs as they come across.”

Webb did not respond to a request seeking the jail’s current inmate population. He also did not respond to a request seeking information on if his facility has negative pressure cells and about the procedure if an inmate tests COVID-19 positive.

Rusk County

Price, Rusk County’s sheriff, said his jail in Henderson also is following all recommendations from the jail commission and Gov. Greg Abbott’s Office of Court Administration, which recently sent out guidelines for reducing jail population and promoting social distancing within facilities.

Like other agencies including jails, maintaining ample supply of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves has been the greatest challenge, he said.

“Everybody is in the same boat when it comes to PPE, because most of that is going to the hospitals first because they’re the ones who really need it,” Price said.

His jail has had no inmates with COVID-19 symptoms, but if that happens, the plan is to send them to the hospital and get a judge to issue a personal recognizance bond on an emergency basis.

“Every other county that has a county jail has the same issue. They’re looking at, if this happens, how are we going to contend with it,” he said. “The main thing is trying to avoid that by taking all of the precautions to prevent some of those things from happening.”

The Rusk County Jail, built nearly 10 years ago, has two negative pressure cells that can each hold one inmate, Price said.

“They were originally built for people who might have tuberculosis or some type of communicable, infectious disease,” he said. “If I get (a third infected inmate), we’re trying to figure that out at the moment. Hopefully, we’re not going to have to figure that out, but we are working on alternative plans if we get there.”

His officers also have taken precautions on patrols or responding to calls by keeping a distance from people unless necessary — even if it means that the conversation involves light shouting.

“They’re not being rude, but they’re practicing social distancing,” Price said.

The Rusk County Jail had 108 inmates on March 1, according to the jail commission. Price said the facility had 95 on Wednesday. The total capacity is 292.

Harrison County

Harrison County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jay Webb said his jail in Marshall is undergoing extra cleaning, has stopped visitation and is taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facility.

“We are cleaning the jail fastidiously,” he said. “We are constantly cleaning everything.”

Webb said when inmates enter the facility, “we are taking their temperatures to have a baseline.”

And when attorneys visit clients, there is a divider between them and the inmates.

Harrison County is following the guidelines set by Harrison County Judge Chad Sims and the governor.

Unlike other counties, Webb said Harrison County is still accepting inmates accused of low-level crimes and is not releasing inmates because of COVID-19 concerns.

“It’s really up to the judges,” he said. “It’s up the arresting officer’s discretion. If they want to put them in, we are accepting them.”

The Harrison jail has two negative pressure cells for inmates, and Webb said any COVID-19 testing would be performed in the facility. No tests have been performed.

The jail had 199 inmates on March 1, according to the jail commission, with a total capacity of 364. Webb said the facility had 210 inmates Wednesday.

Smith County

With a lack of jury trials, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said the courts are moving their dockets faster than ever as inmates are being sentenced to probation and leaving the Tyler jail.

As a result, Smith is able to isolate new inmates.

“We have a triage area where they stay until we know they are not infected,” he said. “If we bring an inmate in and he did not have symptoms but later had COVID, he would contaminate everyone. That is why we keep them isolated when they first come in.”

Smith has worked with the court, the district attorney’s office and the police department with a plan to keep non-violent suspects and criminals out of jail.

However, that does not mean a misdemeanor would give an inmate a stay-out-of-jail free card.

“We quit accepting non-violent Class A and Class B misdemeanors unless there were extenuating circumstances,” Smith said. “But you will be in jail if it is anything alcohol related like a DWI or public intoxication. If you are a danger to yourself or someone else, you will be in jail.”

The Smith County Jail has 1,149 beds, and there were 795 inmates Wednesday, Smith said. The facility had 933 inmates on March 1, according to the jail commission.

Abbott issued an executive order March 29 to stop violent inmates from being released from jail without paying bail.

“I’ve heard from law enforcement officials as well as citizens alike who’ve raised concerns about releases that have already taken place or anticipated releases that could take place,” Abbott said at the time. “We want to reduce and contain COVID-19 in jails and in prisons for the benefit of both the inmates and the law enforcement officers of those facilities.”

However, Smith said his jail already was doing that. They had released inmates based on the faster times with the court system.

“The governor was talking about PR bonds,” Smith said, releasing someone on personal recognizance or without having to pay a small percentage of the bail to be released. “Any assault or violent felony charge, or any felony for that matter, we are not going to release them. Just the non-violent misdemeanors. But if it’s a felony, we are not releasing them.”

Smith County is also taking measures to keep deputies safe after other areas in the state have seen law enforcement personnel contract COVID-19. Smith said his facility has had three scares but no positive tests.

“That’s what I fear, a deputy getting sick, and that is what we are trying to stop,” Smith said. “We had three scares, but it turned out to be the flu and strep.”

Smith has stopped visitations, but inmates are allowed extra time on the phone to talk to their families. When lawyers visit, they must have their temperatures taken and are checked for symptoms. That procedure would end as the facility works on video conferencing with inmates.

The families of inmates no longer have to give medication to medical staff, who are working with doctors and issuing prescriptions to cut down on contact from anyone from outside the jail. Also, jail trusties no longer are on outside work detail, such as picking up garbage or other community work, Smith said.