By Marek Mazurek | South Bend Tribune
April 19, 2020
As the coronavirus continues to spread, jails and prisons have become increased areas of focus after the Indiana Department of Corrections announced nearly a hundred COVID-19 cases and the death of an inmate at the Westville Correctional Facility in LaPorte County last week.
The inmate, who officials say was a male over 70 years of age, marked the first death of an inmate at a state prison from the virus.
As of Wednesday, there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases at the St. Joseph, Elkhart, LaPorte or Marshall county jails, though jail administrators say they’ve increased screening for new arrivals and are testing current inmates.
Troy Warner, an attorney and spokesman for the St. Joseph County Police Department, said the St. Joseph County Jail has tested 31 inmates for the coronavirus since the outbreak started and one inmate is currently in medical isolation pending test results.
Warner said one staff member also is in self-isolation pending test results, though a handful of jail officers who were previously quarantined have since returned to work.
“Some of them have been isolated because of their own tests, some of them because of a spouse’s test,” Warner said. “So far, we’ve not had any spouses or that second degree of separation come back positive.”
The Elkhart County Jail is currently waiting on COVID-19 test results for one inmate and a couple of staff members. Elkhart Sheriff Jeff Siegel said the jail’s policy is to only test inmates who exhibit symptoms of the virus.
“If you come down with a fever, whether you’ve been here for one day or one year, you’re going to get tested,” Siegel said.
Siegel also said that jail staff are screened before they enter the jail at the beginning of their shift.
LaPorte County Sheriff John Boyd said no inmates at the LaPorte County Jail have been tested for the virus. The jail’s medical staff has monitored inmates who displayed minor symptoms, but determined the inmates did not need to be tested after the symptoms disappeared and they completed a 14-day quarantine period, Boyd said.
Marshall County Sheriff Matt Hassell said the county jail has tested only one inmate. That test came back negative for the virus.
Local jails also are following CDC guidelines for dealing with new inmates, including increased cleaning, verbal screening and temperature checks for incoming inmates and more frequent medical checks.
Even if newly booked inmates do not have a heightened temperature or other COVID-19 symptoms, they are being placed in isolation before joining the jail’s general population.
Reducing jail populations
Beyond testing and screening new intakes, administrators said reducing jail populations has been important, as it allows jail staff more options in responding to a possible positive case.
“The biggest prevention method is that we’ve reduced the population down to a point where … we can lock down and isolate if we do get any positive tests inside the jail,” Warner said.
The Tribune has previously reported that local courts have begun releasing nonviolent offenders awaiting trial. As of Wednesday, there were 457 inmates in the St. Joseph County Jail, compared to 540 three weeks ago. The Marshall County Jail houses 189 inmates, out of a capacity of 232. The Elkhart County Jail is down from approximately 800 inmates to 671 and LaPorte now has 258 inmates compared to 311 in late March.
St. Joseph County courts also have begun to release some inmates who have been convicted of misdemeanor offenses, according to a spokeswoman for the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.
Jeff Walker, a prisoner advocate working with Faith in Indiana, said county officials have taken “a lot of good steps” by releasing many nonviolent inmates. Even with reduced populations, Walker expressed concerns about the spread of coronavirus in close-quarter conditions.
“It’s really not an institution that’s set up for social distancing,” Walker said. “So if there happens to be an exposure inside that institution, it can really become bad very, very quickly.”
Even with extra precautions, some feel that more should be done to release inmates.
Yancy Caldwell, whose partner is in the St. Joseph County Jail on misdemeanor public intoxication and public nudity convictions, said all nonviolent offenders, whether they are awaiting trial or have been convicted, should be released because of the pandemic.
“I’m not just concerned for her safety, I’m concerned for other inmates and staff that work the jail,” Caldwell said. “They should reduce the population further, as much as possible. If one person in there gets sick, everybody’s going to start getting sick, that’s what happens in places like that.”
The inmate who died at the Westville facility was a male over 70 years of age. According to the Indiana Department of Corrections, the man did not appear sick before reporting chest pains and trouble breathing on Monday. He was transported to a local hospital and died there. While at the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19.
According to data from the DOC, there are 150 inmates in state prisons who have tested positive for coronavirus as of Friday afternoon. Ninety-eight of those cases are in Westville. There are also 65 confirmed cases among prison staff throughout the state.
Advocates have called for Governor Eric Holcomb to take statewide action to reduce inmate populations. The ACLU of Indiana submitted a petition to the Indiana Supreme Court asking the court to request that sheriffs and local courts release nonviolent offenders and inmates with underlying health issues.
During a Tuesday press conference, Holcomb said the recent death at the Westville facility will not prompt him to release inmates.
Law enforcement agencies across the state, including in local counties, are performing fewer arrests for nonviolent offenses in an effort to avoid bringing new inmates into jails.