A coalition of Oregon civil rights groups and criminal defense attorneys wrote Washington County officials Sunday, worrying one of their greatest fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic had come to pass: The virus had potentially entered the county jail.
In their letter, the groups said they had unconfirmed information a deputy working in the Washington County Jail may have contracted the COVID-19 disease.
“We are also aware that today (Sunday) the jail was closed to all visits, including professional visits, due to an unspecified emergency,” stated a letter signed by leaders at the ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, and others.
“This letter is not intended to alarm or stigmatize anybody in the county, but rather to demand actions and transparency rooted in facts.”
Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said Tuesday his office was still awaiting testing results from inmates. Currently, there aren’t any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the jail, including staff or inmates, a spokesperson for the jail said.
“We don’t have any test results back to confirm any infections yet; we have a few inmates who we’re monitoring,” Garrett said. “It would be my really, really strong hope that we can prevent infection from getting into the jail.”
The sheriff declined to say whether any deputies had been tested for COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t characterize the letter as accurate or inaccurate,” Garrett said. “I would characterize the letter as asking some really good questions.”
The case illustrates the immense concern and vulnerabilities for those stuck in the criminal justice system during a global pandemic where social distancing is critical to keep people safe. The governors in many states, including Oregon and Washington, have banned large gatherings.
This week, President Trump also advised against gatherings of more than 10 people. But in correctional facilities, where inmates and staff often work or live in close quarters, such restrictions could be near impossible to enforce.
In Oregon, there are no known cases of COVID-19 in jails or prisons. The Oregon Department of Corrections has tested six people in the last two weeks, which the agency said came back negative. As of Monday afternoon, one test remained pending, an agency official told OPB.
Dr. Christopher DiGiulio, the corrections department chief of medicine, acknowledged in an interview last week that it’s simply a matter of time before the agency has an inmate who contracts the virus in one of its facilities.
“We’ve developed a vulnerable list, and should we have a case of COVID, what we would do is absolutely make sure that we cohort those vulnerable patients together and separate them from the incident case as much as possible," DiGiulion said.
On Saturday, the Washington state Department of Corrections announced a second employee contracted COVID-19, this one at the agency’s headquarters in Tumwater. Earlier in the week, an employee at the Monroe Correctional Complex-Washington State Reformatory tested positive. So far, Washington has not reported any inmates as testing positive.
Across Oregon, there are more than 20,000 people incarcerated in prisons and jails at any given time. Many of those incarcerated are older and in poor health, putting them in a higher risk category if they contract COVID-19. Access to things like hand washing and sanitized living spaces is fully in the hands of authorities, who are largely working in outdated facilities.
“Even where there is willingness to follow those practices, the practical reality in many places is that there just isn’t the space to separate people enough to be effective in terms of preventing disease spread,” said Alice Lundell with the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
“We are really concerned that if coronavirus gets inside a facility, it could just sweep through the population like wildfire and overwhelm the capacity of the health services to cope with that outbreak.”
Many jails and all DOC institutions have suspended social visitors in an effort to keep COVID-19 from getting inside. Despite being secure, prisons and jails are not static populations. Not only do inmates come and go, but so do attorneys and corrections officers who work there.
“Any outbreak that happens will likely not stay in the facility,” Lundell said. “So, there is a very real prospect that any outbreak in any prison or jail would also spread into the wider community around that facility.”
In an effort to help create social distancing, more than 200 inmates were released from Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Jail. The Los Angeles County sheriff dropped that jail’s population by 600 people.
Some agencies across the Northwest are also releasing inmates, and are trying to make fewer arrests that bring people into the jail. Instead, they are issuing citations and releasing people when possible.
“If you can cite-release someone, don’t bring them to the jail,” especially if they have flu-like symptoms, said Sgt. William Bailey with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office.
On Monday, the Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington, released 45 inmates from its jail, in part to reduce crowding over concerns surrounding COVID-19. The Washington County Jail in Oregon has released more than 120 inmates so far this week to create more room and said it has COVID-19 tests on site. Some of the released inmates are part of the normal coming and going from a jail. Washington County's jail capacity is about 570 inmates, but Sheriff Garrett said they’re currently housing closer to 440 inmates.
Garrett said they’re also reducing the number of bookings into the jail. The goal, he said, is to get to a point where every inmate has their own cell.
Multnomah County is considering a similar reduction in inmates.
“If we can move people out of custody to create additional space within our facilities … we will do that,” Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said. “We have to do it in a very thoughtful and careful manner so that we continue to maintain the safety of our community while we’re in the process of dealing with this pandemic.”
In Oregon, criminal defense attorneys are also working to get as many people out of jails as possible before the inevitable case — or cases — show up.
Carl Macpherson, the executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a nonprofit that represents indigent clients in Multnomah and Washington counties, said his attorneys are combing through their clients for anyone who might make for good release candidates, and plan to file those requests with the courts.
“Particularly ones that are in higher risk categories,” Macpherson said. “National and state emergencies have been declared. Our jails and prisons contain highly vulnerable populations and cannot safely adhere to CDC recommendations and standards. We must seek the release of as many clients as possible during this pandemic.”
Immigration detainees are at a similarly high risk due to overcrowded facilities used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court that would force ICE to release immigration detainees who are considered at high risk for contracting the COVID-19 disease from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. It’s believed to be the first of its kind litigation related to COVID-19 and ICE detainees. Advocates say the lawsuit is the first many planned involving immigration detention facilities across the country.
Last week, ICE suspended all social visits at its detention facilities nationwide.
On Friday, the agency said there were no detainees in ICE custody with a confirmed case of COVID-19. But as recently as Monday afternoon, the agency declined to say how many immigration detainees have been tested.
“It’s just a complete scramble in there,” said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “They say, ‘Oh we’re taking precautions.’ But the precautions are completely inconsistent and come up completely short.”
For example, Adams said immigration attorneys are now separated from their clients by glass.
“And yet, as soon as they go to court, then they’re all sitting together on the benches,” he said. “So even the precautions they’re taking are not consistent.”
Adams estimates there are between 50 and 100 people in the facility who fall into the high risk category for contracting the coronavirus.
He said some detainees have masks, others do not.
Bottom line, Adams said, inside the facility there are hundreds of people in confined quarters, day and night who are also exposed to attorneys, ICE officers and guards.
“So it’s just inevitable that if any individual contracts COVID-19,” he said, “it’s just going to quickly spread throughout the detention center.”
OPB’s Troy Brynelson contributed reporting from Vancouver, Washington.