Our jails and prisons must, first, prevent the introduction of the coronavirus into jail and prison facilities and, second, prevent transmission of the virus once it does enter a facility. China’s COVID-19 outbreak in prisons should serve as a primer for the importance of immediate and sweeping action. In Wuhan’s Women’s Prison, as of 2/23/20, 297 inmates tested positive for COVID-19. Overall, China’s prisons reported 806 positive cases by 2/27/20. In Italy, after all visits were suspended to prevent virus spread, inmates rioted in 27 facilities, causing 6 deaths in one prison and at least 25 escapes from another. With public safety, speedy trial and personal appearance rights, health and well being of incarcerated individuals, and several other complex matters of importance, it is critical to implement a wide array of measures to address prevention.

It might seem obvious that when nearly 600 people are confined in one location, communicable spread of COVID-19 is a major concern. County jails like the Washington County Jail are especially vulnerable, much like nursing homes. While many of the offenders housed have been in the facility for long periods, between 47 and 50 more arrive daily. Which means 50 or more arresting officers enter the facility each day. Now add the 75+ direct supervision staff daily; the programs staff and administrative staff; the classifications, food service, and medical staff; the visiting attorneys and investigators; and community corrections staff. These staff members enter and exit the facility every single day.

We know that COVID-19 often presents with mild to moderate symptoms for most people, increasing the likelihood that individuals won’t realize they are ill and report to work as essential employees in the jail. We also know that prolonged contact in confined spaces increases transmission potential. As was found to be true in China, it is most likely that COVID-19 introduction to a jail or prison will happen from a staff introduction of the virus to the facility. Given these basics, it is critical the Washington County Sheriff’s Office takes immediate preventative measures aimed at reducing those entering the facility, reducing the lodged offender population, and reducing direct transmission opportunities between individuals.

Red Wortham is urging a call to action for the Washington County Sheriff to implement the following protective measures for jail operations immediately.

Measures that should be taken to protect staff and inmates:

  • Screen all incoming arrestees for illness and divert risks to hospital (currently in place)
  • Eliminate and reduce new arrests to only serious and required, citing when possible (requested of arresting agencies)
  • Eliminate all visits to reduce visitors to the facility (currently in place, 3/14/20)
    • Require vendor to provide 1 free video visit weekly to all inmates (IN PLACE, contractor providing 1 weekly video visit, 3/16/20)
  • Cancel all programs to reduce staff entering facility and reduce inmate gatherings (programs cancelled, staff still reporting to work, 3/16/20)
  • Require staff reporting to work outside the secure facility when not critical to operations of offender population
  • Collaborate with judicial staff on expanded release criteria to allow for pre-trial release of all low-level nonviolent charged offenders
  • Collaborate with community corrections to suspend all offenders in custody for technical violations of probation or post prison supervision
  • Transfer all remaining violation sanctions to electronic monitoring with waived or deferred fees
  • Cancel or postpone all incoming and outgoing transports to other facilities and states excepting serious person crimes and higher
  • Re-locate intake housing to individual cell housing unit to allow separation in first 14 days of incarceration (put in place, 3/15/20)
  • Designate housing unit for co-locating all offenders exhibiting signs of illness or testing positive (plan in place)
  • Daily “sick call” medical visits to medical isolation housing in addition to routine medical visits (plan in place, when isolation occurs)
  • Once separation and population reduction achieved, close one or more housing units (3/16/20)
  • Thoroughly clean every cell and then eliminate all cell to cell re-assignments except for illness isolation (3/15/20)
  • Cleaning of all high touch areas, handles, and common surfaces multiple times per day (currently in place)
  • Provide every inmate with soap for in cell hygiene and supply additional handwashing soap at every housing unit sink (more soap being distributed)
  • Screen all inmate workers for fever and symptoms prior to reporting to work daily (kitchen, laundry, serving food, cleaning) (being considered as of 3/16/20)
  • Implement written staff survey at start of every shift requiring report of any symptoms or exposure risk (staff plan for screening being put into place – in progress)
  • Require staff to remain home if ill and plan for reduced staffing measures and emergency staffing measures (county policy in place allowing for this, in place)
  • Encourage attorneys to utilize video and telephone visits whenever possible (all contact visits cancelled unless absolutely critical & encouraging alternative visiting, 3/17/20)
  • Work with judicial staff to allow remote appearance for inmates in medical isolation or exhibiting active symptoms (awaiting court announcement as early as 3/17/20)

It is absolutely valid to remain cognizant to not panic. Preparation and precaution is not panic. We have a responsibility to our staff, our community, and the individuals incarcerated to implement every measure possible to prevent avoidable serious illness and death.

Thank you for reading,
Red Wortham
Red Wortham Red Wortham for Sheriff
PO Box 1623
Hillsboro, Oregon 97123
(503) 987-0220
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