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The  Howard County Criminal Justice Center has been consistently overcrowded in part because of the 70 Level 6 felon inmates that the state is housing on February 21, 2020. Over 400 inmates are listed on the log sheet. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

With the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, people everywhere are trying to abide by Centers for Disease Control guidelines and practice good social distancing.

This practice often means standing or sitting at least 6 feet apart from others at pretty much all times.

But what if this isn’t always possible?

At jails and other correctional facilities around the country where close quarters are the norm, officials have been busy preparing for the possible spread of COVID-19.

And the same is true right here in Howard County.

“Any illness inside the facility is always a priority for us,” Howard County Jail Commander Capt. Robin Byers said.

But Byers also added that she feels the jail is as equipped as it’s ever been to handle an illness like COVID-19, because they’ve essentially been preparing for a virus like this for several years now.

“Back in 2009, we had the H1N1 virus that went through,” she said, “and we started protocol that all the units will be wiped down twice a day with disinfectants and mopping will be with a disinfectant solution. We also have the inmate workers go around and wipe down all the hard surfaces in the jail like all the doorknobs and counters and things.”

Inmate workers also clean the facility’s public lobby every morning and wipe down areas like the visitation telephones and seating area, a task that has been a routine part of jail sterilization for years.

But COVID-19 — which has already killed over 100 people nationwide and infected thousands more just in the past few weeks alone — is still a whole new ballgame, Byers noted.

And while staff members are already taking preventative measures to protect those workers and inmates currently inside the jail, Byers said they are also making sure anyone new who comes in will not bring the COVID-19 virus with them.

“With this situation, we have added a little bit more [action],” she said. “Temperatures are checked on everybody that comes in as new inmates, and anyone with a temperature of over 99 degrees, our medical is notified immediately. Then if it’s severe, they contact the doctor and make a decision on how to handle that [in terms of possible isolation procedures].”

COVID-19 has also changed the way inmates and loved ones can communicate with each other these days, jail officials said.

All visitation is now done at home through the internet instead of via telephone access inside the facility’s lobby, and that change is expected to last for possibly the next several weeks.

COVID-19 has changed up the way of life at the Howard County Courthouse too, especially as it pertains to court proceedings.

In a move authorized by the Indiana Supreme Court and detailed in a Thursday media release by Circuit Court Judge Lynn Murray, the county’s five courts — Circuit and Superiors 1 through 4 — are now only conducting hearings that are essential or time sensitive in nature until April 20, 2020.

This means that all proceedings expect for protective orders, emergency CHINS proceedings or CHINS fact-finding hearings, emergency juvenile detention hearings, emergency custody and parenting-time motions and other emergencies deemed “urgent” will be postponed for at least a month, Murray wrote.

Murray added that criminal hearings still being held inside the courts or county magistrate over the next 30 days will include initial hearings, bond issues, emergency motions and certain sentencing situations involving inmates currently incarcerated in the Howard County jail.

Those particular hearings — involving current jail inmates or juveniles currently being held at the Kinsey Center — will be conducted through video conferencing, the release noted.

The judge also stated in the release that people with questions related to any upcoming court proceedings should direct any inquiries to their attorneys or the court office during normal business hours — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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