Coping with a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail

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Posted July 13, 2020 | By Sheriff Billy Woods

I am writing this letter to confront the rumors, misinformation, keyboard warriors and lies concerning the pandemic and the Marion County Jail.

At the Marion County Jail, as of last week, we housed 1,458 inmates. We house approximately 160 inmates in A-Pod, which is the maximum-security wing of our jail and home to the most dangerous and violent offenders. Earlier this month, we had the entire inmate population of A-Pod tested for COVID-19. Initially, eight of the inmates had exhibited mild symptoms and were moved to an isolation setting. They were found to be positive for COVID-19; they have been receiving supportive care and all eight have been showing improvement. After that, we tested the remaining 157 inmates in A-Pod, with the exception of six inmates who refused to be tested. Of those, 44 were found to be positive for COVID-19. The entire population of A-Pod has been quarantined and they are being seen regularly by medical staff.

As of last week, we had 12 members of our jail staff test positive for COVID-19. They have all been sent home. These jail staff members have been coming to work for months to guard our inmate population. In carrying out their duties, some have been exposed to COVID-19.

We continue to take steps to mitigate against the risk of COVID-19 at the jail. We screen all people, including inmates, prior to them entering the jail. Every inmate undergoes a physical examination and questionnaire. If an inmate presents with symptoms or discloses information, such as travel history, that places them at risk, they are immediately transported to the infirmary and placed on respiratory precautions in a negative pressure isolation cell until they are evaluated by a clinician (physician/ARNP).

The clinician will evaluate the person’s symptoms and history to determine whether to administer a COVID-19 test. The inmates remain in respiratory isolation until cleared by a clinician.

Apart from staff and inmates, we only allow entry into the jail to persons who have a need to enter the jail. Attorneys and the families of inmates can visit with inmates remotely through video-based technology. Anybody who needs to enter the jail undergoes a screening prior to entry, including our staff. Persons exhibiting symptoms or who do not otherwise meet admissions criteria are denied entry.

Our jail medical provider, Heart of Florida Health Center, oversees the care of the inmates.

We provide masks to all inmates traveling outside of their pods, all COVID-positive and COVID-suspected inmates, and all detention deputies and detention assistants. We are continuing to manufacture masks in the jail to be distributed more widely among our inmate population.

Some inmates have made claims that they are being housed in substandard conditions. Some have claimed they are without access to drinkable water. This is a lie. All inmates have access to an unlimited supply of drinkable water in their cells and cups from which to drink.  Inmates have claimed they have no access to cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies are provided to every pod in our jail so that inmates can clean their cells. Some inmates have also complained they were not given outside recreation time. This was done to ensure that healthy inmates did not mingle with potentially sick inmates. Now that we have isolated COVID-positive or COVID-suspected inmates, outside recreation time has resumed.

Some people have suggested that I need to empty out the jail. As your sheriff, this is something I would never do and that I would never support. If you think COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in this community, that would be nothing compared to what would happen if we opened up the doors of the jail and let those 1,500 or so people out into our community. The people who are in jail are all in jail for a reason. Everyone’s reason is unique, but what they all have in common is that there is a court order of some kind requiring them to be there – to serve a sentence, to be held until bond is posted, to be held without bail until trial, or to be held until unpaid child-support is paid. Ultimately, it is those lawful orders of the court that hold those people in custody.

Billy Woods is sheriff of Marion County.