Jail Overcrowding

Five inmates are housed in one of the intake cells at the Howard County Jail on June 28, 2018.

COVID-19 has hit the Howard County jail, and officials say they are currently awaiting a recent round of complete inmate testing results to see just how far the virus has spread.

The first positive case — a male inmate — was identified last week, and Lt. Justin Christmas said there has been “more than one case” diagnosed since that time, though he noted he wasn’t sure of the exact number.

The positive cases — believed at this time to only be inmates — mark the first time since COVID-19 reached the area in March that the virus has entered the jail, a credit to the staff’s cleaning practices and other precautions, Christmas said.

Christmas also noted he believed the jail has been prepared for such an event like a COVID-19 outbreak since the very beginning.

“It’s been pretty easy inside the jail because all of our inmates are assigned to cells and housing units, and we keep detailed logs anytime an inmate leaves out of a housing unit or they go anywhere,” he said. “And that’s standard practice. That has nothing to do with COVID for us. That’s how we always do it to know where they all are. So it was pretty easy to go back and see where the inmate [the first positive case] was and who he’d been around.”

Because of the positive cases inside the jail, Christmas also noted that the facility is currently on lockdown, restricting outside visitation and eliminating inmate classes or areas where they would normally gather.

“We don’t want people moving around and touching things and being around other people, so we’ve essentially stopped everything at the jail until we can figure out exactly what’s happening and make sure we have a pretty good grip on it,” Christmas said. … Of course once you get here, you don’t have too many privileges, but the ones that you do, you don’t want to give those up.

“But the first priority even before they’re necessarily comfortable is that they’re safe,” he added. “So we’re trying to get a grasp on that before we’re going to open anything back up.”

And as jail staff waits on the results of the recent round of testing — with results expected later this week — Christmas said those who have tested positive are currently in isolation cells, and officials have also upped their cleaning practices for the rest of the facility.

“The sheriff purchased backpack disinfectant spray,” he said. “It’s a fine mist that comes out, and so we go around and disinfect the whole place three times a day. It’s a lot of cleaning precautions, trying to make sure everything is good.”

Christmas also gave credit to the facility’s medical staff, saying that they’ve been “on top” of the COVID-19 situation since the beginning.

“Early detection is key,” he said, “and we’re kind of just maintaining what we’ve been doing all along because we feel like it’s been working. … The challenge is that there are so many unknowns with the virus in general. We can follow all the right regulations and guidelines, but at the end of the day, we’re still even as a nation struggling with this.”

And the positive cases at the jail also shouldn’t affect how court proceedings are currently conducted at the Howard County Courthouse, jail officials note.

According to 1st Sgt. Sandra Baldwin, transport between the HCJ and the courthouse has been very limited since about February.

“I would say almost 85-90% of everything is done in house,” she said. “Most of our transport with the courthouse has been wiped out and pretty much done over video conference.”

Baldwin added that there are still individual cases of inmates needing to appear before a judge in person, but those cases have been rare over the past few months.

Howard Circuit Court Judge Lynn Murray said those in-person instances mainly just include jury or bench trials.

“During a trial, they [incarcerated defendants] do have the right to appear in person as opposed by video,” she said. “Other than that, I know here in Circuit Court since about mid-March, we’ve been doing practically all of our criminal hearings with persons who are incarcerated in jail, we’ve been doing them over video. There have been very few proceedings at all where we’ve had a defendant from there actually brought to the courtroom.”

Murray added that the majority of those trials have also been delayed, due to COVID-19 concerns.

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