More than 40 inmates at the Clark County Jail have contracted COVID-19 in the last three weeks, prompting demands that the jail reduce its inmate population further.

The outbreak comes as county officials are slated to discuss jail facilities and whether the county needs to temporarily add more beds for the roughly 400 inmates lodged there.

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Coronavirus has spread quickly through the jail over the last several weeks. The jail reported Nov. 12 that seven inmates caught the virus. As of Tuesday, 39 inmates at the jail had active cases of COVID-19

Inmates who test positive are moved to medical housing units, according to jail chief Ric Bishop. But the county plans to discuss the possibility of adding more beds, which may help spread out the jailed population. A work session is slated for Wednesday.

“It’s to create space,” said Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy. “Not additional beds necessarily, but additional separated beds.”

Medvigy, who chairs the county’s Law and Justice Council with regional law enforcement representatives, said the Clark County Sheriff’s Office may propose using other county-owned facilities. He said the county may also try to rent beds at jails outside the county.

The question looming over the discussion will be whether adding space is the answer, or if more inmates should be released. At least one Vancouver defense attorney and a handful of legal aid groups suggest the latter.

When COVID-19 first emerged in the spring, the jail took steps to release scores of inmates. The jail’s roster of more than 600 inmates reportedly fell to around 350 in the spring. But the population grew in late summer, according to Bishop.

The jail’s inmate roster reported 399 inmates on Tuesday but had posted as many as 420 people in custody over the Thanksgiving week.

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Summer typically brings more inmates, Bishop said, then the population takes a dip around the holidays. He resisted making any predictions this year.

“This is not a typical year and I cannot say with certainty if the population will continue to decline,” Bishop told OPB.

Vancouver attorney Shon Bogar represents 13 inmates, four of whom have contracted COVID-19. In court filings, he’s argued the courts can impose house arrest and bracelets for arrestees rather than confine them to the jail.

“I would hope that people remember that the vast majority of folks in the jail have not been convicted of crimes for which they are being held,” Bogar said. “Being accused of a crime should not be a death sentence ... This was avoidable.”

This week, the ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington, Washington Defender Association, Columbia Legal Services and NAMI SW Washington all issued a joint letter calling for the jail to cut its population.

The groups’ seven-page letter makes several suggestions to jail fewer people, such as changing bail protocol, employing better alert systems for court dates so people don’t miss hearings, and focusing on out-of-custody supervision.

Their letter specifically refutes a memo signed by Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins in October that requested the work session about jail beds. In the memo, the sheriff wrote the jail planned to “increase bed space for inmates … while maintaining COVID-19 protocols.”

“We think that — especially in the middle of a pandemic — it’s critical that Clark County do everything that it possibly can to reduce rather than increase its jail population,” said Ethan Frenchman of Disability Rights Washington.

Medvigy received the letter and said the suggestions have merit. He pointed to the jail’s inmate releases in the spring and said the courts and law enforcement agencies are still trying to keep the population low.

“I have not heard that anyone’s reversing course” on those earlier efforts, Medvigy said. “The population has been creeping up, which makes it very hard to keep everyone safe.”

The jail has changed to adapt to its outbreak, Bishop said. As of Nov. 23, all inmates are tested for COVID-19, rather than just those who show symptoms, he said. The jail picked up a second testing machine and more test kits, as well.

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