More COVID-19 cases confirmed in county jail; judge has concerns over COVID in jail; Sheriff details some precautions

More than 100 COVID-19 cases are now associated with the Cascade County Adult Detention Center.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said Sept. 4 that there 81 current cases among inmates and 32 inmates who have recovered.

There are eight detention officers who tested positive and are recovering at home, Slaughter said.

No one is in the hospital at this time, he said.

Cascade County adds 58 cases, total is now 355 with 165 active cases

As of Sept. 4, the Cascade County total is 364, of which 174 are active COVID cases, according to the state map.

Statewide, the total is 8,019 and of those, 2,084 are active cases.

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Slaughter said jail officials are attempting to move more than 40 Department of Corrections inmates from the county jail to other jails across the state to make room in Cascade County for better distancing and quarantining.

On Sept. 3, the population at the facility, including state inmates, was 423. Slaughter said there were 277 on the county jail side where the capacity is about 212.

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Slaughter said he’s working with county sheriffs statewide to transfer the DOC inmates, who are “the same inmates that I have been pleading with the State of Montana to transfer from our jail since earlier this year.”

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“We now have a quarantine pod to reduce the possibility of a healthy person being infected by a COVID-19 positive inmate.  We are working daily with Planned Parenthood, our contracted medical provider, City-County Health and Alluvion to stop this virus from spreading in our jail,” Slaughter said in a release. “We have learned a lot during this outbreak and changed many operations to meet the medical needs of our inmates and staff. Please remember, the response protocols to this virus have changed multiple times. We feel that our medical staff and community have supported us and taken care of us during this difficult time.”

55 positive COVID-19 cases associated with the Cascade County jail

Slaughter and jail officials were criticized this week by some district court judges and defense attorneys for not doing enough to prevent the outbreak.

The lack of masks until late August was mentioned several times.

COVID-19 confirmed in Cascade County jail

In an interview with The Electric, Slaughter said the guidance on masks in jails changed several times throughout the pandemic and once there was a positive case, they got masks to all the inmates. He said it was difficult to find masks without metal pieces, which create a safety hazard at the jail.

At one point, jail staff ordered a few thousand dollars worth of cloth masks that they thought would be the solution, but they turned out to have metal pieces so they couldn’t be used for inmates, Slaughter said.

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Slaughter said CCSO applied for grants for personal protective equipment and got one but are waiting on their order to come in and for the other, they’re waiting to find out of they were awarded the grant.

Slaughter said that few inmates wear the masks and “there’s no mechanism we can make them wear masks.”

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Slaughter said he heard statements that jail officials hadn’t heeded recommendations from health officials so he talked to all the local health providers to ask if there was something the jail hadn’t followed. Slaughter said he was told there were no recommendations the jail didn’t follow but that they’d all had to compromise based on the nature of the facility.

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“We’re not a restaurant or a hospital, we’re a correctional facility and it’s a totally different game,” Slaughter said.

Trisha Gardner, Cascade County health officer, directed all questions regarding whether health recommendations were followed to Slaughter.

Concerns about conditions the jail came up during bail hearings on Aug. 31 in Judge Elizabeth Best’s courtroom.

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On Sept. 1, she told The Electric that she is more focused on the fact that we have people who are presumed innocent that we are housing for reasons that judges have deemed necessary, but are still owed a duty of care.

“We need to keep them as safe as we can. I want to somehow address this very serious issue. I don’t want to be responsible for someone dying in a hospital or having severe permanent heart issues or ending up on a respirator because we didn’t do what we could do,” Best told The Electric. “I know there are a lot of moving parts here, everyone has difficult decisions to make.”

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Best said that “it appears we’ve missed our first opportunity to stop this virus in the jail early. The problem gets bigger the longer we let it sit and becomes more difficult to solve. We can’t unring this bell.”

She said she was concerned about how long it took to get masks on people in the jail and overcrowding.

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Jail officials and the Cascade County Attorney filed a number of motions in the spring in an attempt to get inmates who had been sentenced to the Montana Department of Corrections transferred out of the county jail.

Best filed orders requiring the state to transfer those inmates but DOC challenged the issue and it ended up at the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of DOC and those inmates have not yet been transferred.

Best said that if the county had funding for pretrial supervision, it could reduce the jail population.

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She said that “we don’t know simply based on reported symptoms whether or not someone is carrying the virus. We can’t just look at someone and say you’re sick. It’s extremely tricky.”

Judges, law enforcement, county attorneys, public defenders and others in the system are all feeling the frustration she said since they have to consider public safety and the presumption of innocence, “but then we throw in something that’s not statutory or constitutionally recognized factor, the virus. We’re balancing a lot of things and it becomes very frustrating and scary to decide what do we do.”

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Best said that some would say leave them in jail because they committed a crime, but that’s not true until a jury determines that, “unless we are just throwing out the presumption of innocence.” Even if convicted, they don’t deserve to be cruelly punished, she said.

Best said it’s challenging to determine whether to reduce bonds so there is a greater likelihood a person can afford it and be released because “if we set bond knowing they have COVID or have been exposed to it, do we have any obligations to the people that he or she is going to come into contact with upon release? We have a disproportionately high representation of natives and those in poverty in jail, so if we release them either with COVID or they start showing symptoms and they don’t have a home, what is our responsibility then? We’ve got a pretty big potential ripple effect here.”

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She said that COVID is a concern, but holding people in jail solely for the virus doesn’t meet constitutional muster, as public defenders have repeatedly pointed out.

Trying to apply constitutional factors to a pandemic is complicated, she said, but people also don’t deserve to contract the virus whether inside the jail or out.

Slaughter said they’re also looking into changes to the jail’s air filtration systems to mitigate the spread of COVID and he’s having conversations about it with the County Commission, but it’s an expensive item.

Slaughter said all inmate and corrections staff are being tested for COVID-19 weekly now.

All of the deputies and employees on the CCSO side of the building were tested initially, but since deputies aren’t entering the jail currently, they’re only being tested if they have symptoms or are identified through contact tracing, Slaughter said.

During the pandemic, Slaughter said law enforcement who bring people to the jail are staying in the drive through garage area and not entering the jail facility at all to limit exposure. The detention staff collect paperwork and do health screenings in the garage and if someone is running a fever, the jail won’t accept them until they get COVID tested and can show they aren’t a risk, he said.

“Have had we had a perfect response to this event? I think a perfect response to this is impossible, this health crisis has evolved many many times,” Slaughter said in an interview with The Electric. “But I’m confident we did the best we could to keep this out of our facility. It’s difficult.”

Most inmates who tested positive were asymptomatic, Slaughter said.

“What does the public want me to do here? Do they want me to release people so we don’t have COVID in the jail, which I don’t have the authority to do, or do they want public safety to be upheld and the people who get in trouble go to jail,” Slaughter said.