LOCKING COVID-19 OUT

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Nassau County Jail enacts measures to protect inmates, staff from coronavirus

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  • Nassau County Director of Jails, Detention and Court Security John Slebos says no inmates in the Nassau County Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus, contrary to the nationwide trend, which as this chart from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows, is more than five times the number of cases in the American population. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Nassau County Director of Jails, Detention and Court Security John Slebos says no inmates in the Nassau County Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus, contrary to the nationwide trend, which as this chart from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows, is more than five times the number of cases in the American population. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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To help curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people stay away from public spaces as much as possible, stay outside when around others, and maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

To adapt, many workplaces are allowing employees to work from home, schools are offering online classes, and many businesses are providing delivery and drive-thru services.

But what happens if you’ve broken the law and are ordered to serve a sentence?

Lacking the ability to follow the CDC’s guidelines, are jails and prisons becoming Petri dishes of COVID-19, as Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County, Ind., Board of County Commissioners told The New York Times in March?

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the COVID-19 rate for prisoners is more than five times higher than that of the population of the U.S., with 3,251 cases per 100,000 prisoners versus 587 cases per 100,000 in the general population in June. To find out if that statistic applies to Nassau County, the News-Leader spoke with Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper and Director of Jails, Detention and Court Security John Slebos about NCSO’s efforts to control the spread of the virus in the Nassau County Jail and the results of those efforts.

According the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, two ways the criminal justice system can slow the pandemic are to reduce the number of people in local jails – by reducing admissions and releasing more people – and to eliminate unnecessary face-to-face contact for those involved in active cases.

The Prison Policy Initiative said lowering jail admissions reduces “jail churn” – the rapid movement of people in and out of the system – and allows the facility’s total population to reduce quickly. Slebos said the court system in Nassau County is working to reduce the number of inmates by releasing as many as possible on their on recognizance or with an ankle bracelet, keeping them out of the jail. He said judges have been helping by allowing inmates to be released as often as possible, and holding court appearances via video has reduced unnecessary fact-to-face contact.

When inmate is taken into the jail, they are isolated in a cell by themselves, if possible. If there is not space available, they are placed in quarantine for 14 days with others who come in at about the same time so that they finish their quarantine at the same time. They are not tested for coronavirus unless they are displaying symptoms, Slebos said. If an inmate does test positive, he explained, they would be placed in an isolation area and put under medical watch, meaning they are monitored every 30 minutes. If their symptoms worsen, they can be taken to a hospital, but Slebos said no inmates have yet been taken to a hospital. 

Inmates are provided disposable surgical masks, which they are required to wear in all areas except in their housing pods. The masks are replaced “as needed.” All surfaces in the jail are sanitized four times a day. Due to the alcohol content of hand sanitizer, it cannot be made available to inmates, Slebos said.

Slebos said Leeper has furnished jail staff with cloth masks, which are worn at all times, and N95 masks as well as surgical masks are available.

All vendors and others coming into the jail to do business are tested for coronavirus and then monitored each time they visit the facility. In order to reduce contact, visiting has been discontinued, as have meetings such as NA and AA and classes. Inmates can meet among themselves in the dayroom, Slebos said.

“We aren’t on lockdown inside the jail, just from the outside,” he explained. “We are focused on going back (to allowing visitation) at the beginning of the year. They deserve and need that.” He said that, in extenuating circumstances, arrangements could be made to bring someone into the jail, but he has not had to do that.

Slebos said the policies in place are paying off. Although some inmates have displayed symptoms of COVID-19, none have tested positive for coronavirus. He said only “a few” staff members have tested positive, and they were required to quarantine at home and not return to work until they tested negative. He said all test results are reported to the Florida Department of Health.

“The jail was built in 2002 and not designed to deal with health issues,” Leeper said. “We are protecting everyone as best we can.”

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com