Some releases from county jail will help avert spread of virus
Washington County Jail released some inmates early and Sheriff Pat Garrett announced other steps to reduce the possibility of spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus to inmates, staff and the public.
Garrett announced the steps Monday afternoon, March 16. In the next 24 hours, the jail booked 22 new inmates but released 121 others, although some of them were for other reasons.
The Hillsboro jail has a maximum capacity of 572, and sheriff's spokesman Brian van Kleef said the current population is around 540. The jail was opened in 1998.
"We're hoping all of these measures will get us down to around 500," Van Kleef said Monday. "We're hoping it will be manageable."
According to figures issued Tuesday afternoon, 35 of the 121 inmates were released under a longstanding policy that sets priorities when the overall count approaches the jail's capacity. Of the others: 33 were released by court order, 25 by time already served, eight on their own recognizance, seven through a court date arranged elsewhere, two by posting bail, and 11 moved elsewhere.
While sheriff's deputies will have the option of writing tickets instead of taking offenders into custody, the sheriff's statement specified that offenders accused of domestic violence, sex crimes or violent crimes against people will continue to go to jail.
Garrett announced the list of steps after a meeting with justice system leaders at the Law Enforcement Center, which is next to the jail.
Later, Garrett was more specific about what the jail is doing to make sure common areas and cells are clean.
"I was in the jail Sunday afternoon and I saw cleaning almost everywhere I turned," he said. "Outside work crews are kept inside to help other inmate workers who clean from one side of the jail to the other several times a day. In each housing unit, cleaning happens after inmate out-time, after meals."
The Sheriff's Office was working on the list even as several groups — led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon — called on county sheriffs and state prison officials to minimize the risk of spreading the virus linked to severe respiratory disease in vulnerable people.
Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said inmates are in close quarters in jail — and many have chronic illnesses that make them vulnerable to infections.
She said the steps that health experts recommend — washing hands, cleaning frequently used surfaces and maintaining social distances — may be difficult to carry out in jails.
"When you are in prison or jail, you can only do those things insofar as the leadership of the facility and the corrections officers or the sheriff's deputies you deal with day to day are willing to support those approaches," she said in a conference call with reporters Monday.
"The reality in many places is there is not the space to separate people enough to be effective in terms of preventing the spread of disease … These people are particularly vulnerable to the possibility of an outbreak."
Garrett said afterward that inmates will have access to hand-washing.
"Soap is available at all common area sinks," he said. "We ensure all inmates have access to soap in their individual cells."
Garrett announced these other steps for the jail:
• Meals will be served to inmates inside their cells to adhere to "social distancing" of 6 feet.
• Inmates will be placed in single-occupancy cells where possible.
• Inmates will be barred from gathering in groups of more than 20.
• Added screening for inmates and staff entering the jail will include temperature readings. Fever is one of the symptoms of the illness.
• The jail's medical staff is equipped with kits for in-house testing for the virus.
• Inmate programs have been put on hold.
• Social visits to the jail have been stopped. The Sheriff's Office will offer additional telephone calls and video visits, and will foot the bill for some of them.
Prior to the sheriff's statement, Kelly Simon, a staff attorney for ACLU/Oregon, urged jail and prison managers to take several of the steps on the sheriff's list. She did express concern that limits on outside visitors, even if warranted, could make things more difficult for inmates.
"We all are experiencing feelings of isolation," she said during the conference call. "It is important from the perspective of health and the protection of people's rights that people can stay connected with those outside of custody."
Washington County Jail accounts for about 10% of Oregon's 6,000 inmates in county and regional jails. Oregon also holds about 14,000 inmates in state prisons. About 1,100 juvenile offenders also are in custody.
Chief Justice Martha Walters, who leads Oregon's system of trial and appellate courts, already announced other steps to limit the spread of the virus in courthouses. Counties supply the physical facilities and security for the courts, but the judges and court staffs are state employees.
Shaun McCrea, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, called on Walters to postpone jury trials through April 10, and limit hearings and other proceedings.
Walters' order, which she issued Friday, urges courts to conduct alternatives to in-person proceedings, such as telephone calls and video conferences.
NOTE: Updates with sheriff's comments after story was posted Monday night; also official number of inmates released in past 24 hours ending Tuesday afternoon.
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