The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges, including how to prevent an outbreak in the county jail system, something that so far has been prevented.
Williamson County Sheriff Dusty Rhoades said in a phone call that so far no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and that, as previously reported, WCSO has only had one employee test positive for the virus, although he declined to specify the role of that employee in the department.
While the jail is not offering widespread nasal swap testing to all inmates, only to those who are showing symptoms, Rhoades said that inmates are provided with soaps and sanitizers, and only inmates in medical units are allowed to have masks, as face coverings in the general jail population are prohibited.
“Anytime they come into the jail their temperature is taken and any prisoner that comes in their temperature is taken,” Rhoades said. “And if my guys say they’re sick then they go home and if an inmate has a temperature then he’s masked up and sent to a medical cell, a negative-pressure cell, and they’re sent there for screening and we’ve got screening procedures to where we can hopefully keep this stuff out of the jail.”
According to Rhoades, the jail isolates anyone with a fever or other symptoms associated with the virus in the medical unit prior to administering and while awaiting the results of the nasal swab tests.
So far Rhoades said that less than 10 inmates have been placed into the medical unit due to initial health concerns over possible viral infection, again, all of which have resulted in negative tests.
Rhoades said that the jail does not have the capability to issue care to any inmate who was experiencing a serious medical episode or in need of a ventilator, so if an inmate were to test positive and need critical care they would be transferred to a local hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for public health, as well as specific guidelines for Correctional and Detention Facilities, efforts that, according to reporting by ABC news, may be hard to actually implement in a jail setting.
Earlier this month the jail released 136 non-violent, misdemeanor offenders in an effort to the reduce the jail population as a public health precaution, as well as having suspended visitation and jail programs in March, all of which Rhoades attributed to his administrations success in controlling the pandemic's impact on the jail and sheriff's office to this point.
On April 6 the Nashville Scene reported that the nearby Davidson County Jail has seen its first inmate infection and across the nation the issue has led to deaths in jails and prisons from Louisiana to New York and Texas.
On March 24, nine prison advocacy and reform organizations penned a letter to President Trump to encourage him to commute Federal prison sentences for inmates who are most vulnerable to the virus.
Procedures for future
Rhoades said that the public will see deputies who are assigned to work in the county administrative complex, the courthouse or other buildings wearing face masks and gloves and he is encouraging deputies on patrol to take the same precautions if they feel comfortable operating with the personal protective equipment. Rhoades did say that some calls such as assisting someone experiencing a mental health crisis may benefit from not wearing a mask as not to intimidate or scare a person.
“If we can take a report over the telephone, were going to take it that way, but if we have to go into somebody’s house then my guys are going to mask up and glove up,” Rhoades said. “I’m leaving it up to the guys if the person that wants to see us doesn’t want us to mask up then we won’t mask up — it’s going to be a case-by-case basis.”
Rhoades said that WCSO will have to continue these public health and safety measures for the foreseeable future as the virus is expected to have a second wave in the fall and winter and as a vaccine may not be available for months.
“I kind of envision that that’s how we’re going to be operation from here on out,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades said that he's working to get forehead thermometers to expand these efforts in both the jail and anywhere that deputies are assigned to provide security, adding that while deputies and other sheriff's office employees are not given nasal swab tests, they are encouraged to take advantage of the free testing provided by the county at the Williamson County Ag Center.
In terms of crime, Rhoades said that the county has seen a reduction in most crime over the past month due to many businesses being closed and most people staying home, although he said there has been a spike in assaults.
Rhoades said that the public health crisis has created a ton of challenges for the department. He said that his administration is looking at how they can operate best within the limitations, from churches providing DVD's of worship services for inmates to the department tightening their belts for the upcoming budget. Rhoades said the budgeting process was reminiscent of 2008, having already submitted two proposed budgets with a 5% and a 10% reduction to the county.