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COVID-19 strikes fear, discomfort for inmates and staff in Coconino County jail
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COVID-19 strikes fear, discomfort for inmates and staff in Coconino County jail

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A Flagstaff Police Department vehicle sat in a concrete sally port, the garage where arrestees are dropped off at the jail and booked until appearing before a judge.

A detention officer stood on Thursday afternoon, wearing a surgical mask, at the police cruiser's open rear passenger door and then asked the person in custody multiple questions about whether he had possibly been recently exposed, whether he had been tested for the coronavirus, and whether he exhibit symptoms. Jail staff must also measure and log the arrestee's temperature before they entering the facility.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new type of fear about the Coconino County jail for the people who work or are incarcerated in the facility. It’s a fear felt directly by inmates, and causes concern for lawyers and families as well.

For detention officers, the pandemic has led to extra steps in their daily processes in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from getting sick, yet many jail staff have contracted the virus since Coconino County's outbreak initially began.

As of July 13, four inmates and zero detention staff in the facility are positive with COVID-19. Since the global pandemic began, a total of 13 staff members and 49 inmates have gone through the facility as being positive for COVID-19, according to Matthew Figueroa, Coconino County jail commander. The jail has not reported any deaths due to the virus.

Elle Slowtalker has a brother who is an inmate currently housed in the Coconino County jail.

Her and her family have taken steps to try to assist her brother in jail by sending him money. Despite their attempts to help, she feels disconnected from him and afraid he won't be able to maintain his health. Slowtalker also worries about people who might be elderly or medically vulnerable in the facility, and those lacking a support system that provides money and other aid.

She admitted her sibling has likely made some mistakes in his life, calling him a “knucklehead,” but she loves him through it all.

“He’s human, too,” Slowtalker said. “These people in jail are not just all criminals.”

Many people in jails are awaiting a verdict or plea deal, and therefore have not been officially found guilty or not guilty of committing a crime, Figueroa said.

“People in our facility may go to prison and may go to jail for a long time, but that’s not the majority,” Figueroa said. “We need to understand these are community members that we work alongside with, we communicate with and are our neighbors when they’re not in jail.”

Jails across the nation have proven to be notoriously difficult places to stop the spread of highly communicable diseases once an outbreak begins, according to federal authorities. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a long list of steps that jails can or should take in response to the virus. Federal authorities recommend jails tailor their procedures by working with local and state health officials to consider the available resources and ability to respond before taking action in many cases.

The CDC estimates 2.1 million adults are housed within approximately 5,000 correctional and detention facilities on any given day. Based on a study published in May, the CDC examined 37 jurisdictions and found that 86% responding facilities reported at least one positive case of COVID-19.

In Arizona, jails have reported 1,100 positive cases as of the end of June, according to the Associated Press. More than 90% of the county jail cases came from Maricopa County.

Incarceration is a complex system involving housing, healthcare, court transport and food systems. The Coconino County jail said it has taken steps to provide cleaning products and create distance between people inside of the jail.

Figueroa said he is in close communication with jails around the state, and refers to CDC, state and county health recommendations before implementing procedures.

Early on the jail reduced their population size from 400 people to 200, creating space for social distancing. Now Figueroa is worried about the level of care he can provide for inmates as he sees the jail’s population continue to rise back up to 300.

Figueroa has gone on record multiple times emphasizing the importance of keeping their prison population low by using cite-and-release or alternatives to incarceration for non-violent and misdemeanor offenses.

In his mind, the jail will continue to do its job of incarcerating inmates for the time being, but the time could come when they might have to refuse misdemeanor arrests, Figueroa said.

Before that happens, the jail might have to reduce the amount of days it can isolate new inmates. If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs after that point, Figueroa said they would consider refusing misdemeanor arrests for the safety of the inmates.

“Right now it’s very tight, but we are able to still do it,” Figueroa said. “We’re constantly changing where our general population is living in the jail so we can have more space to do the quarantine because we’re seeing the population go up. At some point, we could get to a level where we’re not going to be able to do it.”

The jail has instituted a 14-day isolation system for every new inmate. While an inmate said toilet paper and soap is tough to access, the jail said it has followed CDC guidelines and expanded access to soaps and toilet paper to help ensure inmates have what they need to be clean. But the question that has become central to discussions about preventing the spread of COVID-19 remains: are these precautions enough?

Policy

Sarah Erlinder, a federal public defender, said her clients always hate being in jail, but COVID-19 has placed a whole new level of fear in her clients.

“People are scared of not getting enough attention. If they start to feel sick, they’re feeling like they’re on their own there,” Erlinder said. “It’s definitely a change in the way I’ve heard clients talking about being in the jail.”

Erlinder had filed a record request to receive more information about the jail's policies and their testing numbers in light client concerns. She was disappointed there was no written policy for her to attain about COVID-19 guidelines.

Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll explained the jail does not have a written policy on COVID-19 at this time and has been relying on their communicable disease policy to try to prevent community spread within the jail. Staff have also been receiving emails updating them about procedures and have meetings with supervisors to help explain current standards as the jail adapts.

Some of these procedures include requiring staff to check and log temperatures before entering the facility. Masks have been required for inmates and staff in the facility.

Driscoll said writing a policy would be difficult given how much information and recommendations have changed during the past few months, and could continue to change. He said jail staff plan to write a specific policy related to COVID-19, but wants things to stabilize first.

“We take these issues very seriously and try to create the most safe environment possible for [inmates and staff],” Driscoll said.

Hilary Yug, an inmate who tested positive with the coronavirus while in jail, said he developed the disease toward the end of June. Yug said he was immediately tested and put into quarantine upon having a headache, and said he tested positive the next day.

Yug says he commonly gets pneumonia and is used to those symptoms, but said these symptoms are “not a joke.”

Among other things, Yug has been experiencing diarrhea and vomiting, which has posed challenges for him keeping clean in his cell. In his mind, he needs more access to items such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

He said he’s had to tear toilet paper and ration it to make it last, and has resorted to using bed sheets when he runs out of toilet paper to stay clean when he said the jail will not provide more. He said he thinks the community forgets about inmates during the pandemic.

"I'm just trying to reach out there to hopefully change something, and do something about it," Yug said.

Currently the CDC recommends that both tissues and soaps be made available and free. Figueroa did not agree with Yug's presentation of their policy on toilet paper, and said the jail should be giving tissues to anyone who requests it.

“With diarrhea issues, we aren’t going to deny giving somebody toilet papers,” Figueroa said. “Absolutely, if they show why they can’t wait until the next issuing of toilet paper, we would rather [give them toilet paper] and potentially catch somebody not being honest and hoarding and dealing with that instance than denying somebody toilet paper.”

Due to the county sales tax that provides the jail funds, and based on their private supplier of soap and toilet paper, Figueroa said the jail has not had trouble getting any supplies during the pandemic. Upon entering the facility, every inmate receives a roll of toilet paper, Figueroa explained. If a judge requires them to stay in the facility, the inmate will be given a roll of toilet paper every Tuesday and Friday evening.

Since COVID-19, Figueroa said, they expanded their policy to state that inmates should be given additional rolls of toilet paper upon request. If an inmate is found hoarding toilet paper for whatever reason, the jail can begin a separate investigation.

Erlinder said she has heard from other lawyers and clients that the jail hasn’t expanded access to different types of cleaners to help cleanse their spaces. Figueroa confirmed that sanitizers are not allowed in jail cells. The CDC recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers be placed in permissible areas, citing security restrictions on what inmates can or cannot access.

Currently, bars of soap are provided to inmates on demand and for free “regardless if the inmate has funds on their account or is indigent,” Figueroa said.

“CDC recommends soap and continued education to wash hands frequently,” Figueroa said via email. “We provide inmates with industry-standard sanitizing cleaning products three times a day and additionally as needed.”

14-day isolation

The main line of defense the jail has instituted beyond self-cleaning is a mandatory 14-day isolation policy that started about a month ago, Figueroa said.

There are three separate ways the jail houses people in their units: some are quarantined when they have tested positive for the virus; some are isolated when they are first booked in; and the rest are the general population. Figueroa has called the jail's isolation a vital part of their COVID-19 response.

Isolation begins on the first day an inmate is booked into the jail. The jail then must track that inmate’s progression for 14 days to ensure they can monitor the inmate for any possible signs and symptoms of COVID-19. During the 14-day period, other inmates are also brought into the facility and placed into separate cells in isolation.

Figueroa said the 14-day isolation is complicated and takes up a lot of space in the jail. It a very different way of housing inmates than the way the jail treats the general population.

In the general population, inmates are normally let out of their cells at 6 a.m. for breakfast until 10 p.m. During that time they can watch television, make calls and have video visits.

In the isolation cells, inmates can only be let out with other inmates who were booked at the same time. When more inmates are booked, this means the entire isolation population will have less free time to be out of their cell as they must share the space.

“All new inmates that go into a 14-day quarantine, unfortunately, are in that same situation. But what we do is try to provide as much out of their cell time that we possibly can, which we can do a lot more of if our population is down,” Figueroa said.

On the 13th day, the jail can administer the inmate a test for COVID-19 that will be returned on the next day. As of July 13, the jail has tested 150 inmates and 195 staff members for COVID-19.

Asymptomatic spread

Erlinder hoped to see more testing being done in the future, especially in light of what the country now knows about asymptomatic cases. Figueroa said the jail has even seen some of its staff show up as asymptomatic positives, and so they’re trying to account for it.

The CDC reports that testing asymptomatic people “might be needed” if a person has a recent known, or suspected, exposure to the virus.

It also gives jails the leeway to consider whether they can test people without symptoms for early identification. The federal agency, however, recommends the jail consult with local and state health departments and considering the availability of resources, results and the ability for a coordinated response.

Erlinder believes every inmate who enters the facility should be tested.

Figueroa said their testing procedure is to test people who have known exposures and to allow space to test people on the 13th day of the isolation, unless there is a known exposure. He acknowledged that the current recommendation is not a perfect system.

“We’re finding out that even [the current policy] is not going to be a 100% guarantee that inmates are not going to develop signs and symptoms, even past 14 days, but we’re not seeing it so regularly that we need to change even our protocols,” Figueroa said.

Currently, if a positive is found in the general population, the jail will place the housing unit in quarantine until they can test and determine positives.

Figueroa said he prefers to focus on finding the right time to test.

“Because so many people are asymptomatic, there’s no way to know we’re catching everybody in our custody during their entire time here. They may be positive and we didn’t know about it,” Figueroa said. “We’re only doing what we possibly can, following recommendations. We’re not flying by the seat of our pants and making things up as we go along.”

The jail has received many calls and requests for information about COVID-19 testing and their positive numbers. They’ve discussed releasing numbers in some capacity every day; however, Driscoll said the numbers would have to come with a caveat due the daily influx of people.

A person could theoretically have tested positive for the virus before being booked, show up as a positive in their system, and be released by a judge the next day.

“Every time we give stats, wait 12 hours and it’s gonna be different,” Driscoll said.

Beyond further transparency, Erlinder felt the community should engage with their community more to understand what challenges inmates and the jail are facing. In her mind, that would help ensure the inmate population is being managed as best as possible.

"It comes back to the jail because ultimately the jail’s responsible for the people entrusted to it," Erlinder said. "I don’t think they can be expected to do it by themselves."

Figueroa said he’d be happy to help explain any detail of their policy to anyone who is curious.

“If there are any concerns coming directly to us, I’m speaking to those individuals and explaining what our processes have been put in place,” Figueroa said. "I’m also directing them to where they can find that updated information.”

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