Tensions over jail overcrowding and COVID-19 testing continue in Cascade County

For months, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has been asking the Montana Department of Corrections to take custody of inmates in the jail who have been convicted and sentenced to the state prison system.

The Cascade County Adult Detention Center has been overcrowded for years and in April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold locally, Slaughter and Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki asked the DOC to move about a dozen inmates.

The same day Racki filed motions for transfers, Gov. Steve Bullock issued an order suspending transport into all state prison facilities due to COVID.

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A local District Court judge ordered the DOC to take custody of some of their inmates, sending the issue to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the state and many of the state inmates remain in the county jail.

Over the summer, Slaughter worked with other county sheriffs who took some of the local inmates to free up space in the Cascade County jail, which has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak since late August.

Slaughter told The Electric that the state moved a few inmates over the summer, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with more who received sentences from the court and as of Sept. 29, there were 33 people in the county jail who had been sentenced to a state corrections facility and were awaiting transport.

The jail’s total population on Sept. 29 was 383, including 141 on the state prison side. That brings the county closer to its capacity of 372, Slaughter said, and 212 on the county side.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the Cascade County jail the state has halted any transfers from the facility, Slaughter said.

On Sept. 29, Cascade County added 28 cases bringing the entire county’s total to 729 with 290 active cases.

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Earlier in September, Slaughter asked the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association for help and on Sept. 18, the association sent a letter to Bullock asking the state and DOC “to manage their inmate population without balancing the fiscal needs of the state and the inmate population on the backs of local detention facilities. The Department of Corrections continually ignores the needs, risks, and impacts at the local detention facility level in order to meet their
financial and programmatic objectives. This is the antithesis of a productive and collaborative partnership.”

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In response, Bullock wrote in a Sept. 22 letter that “throughout this pandemic, the department has continued to transport offenders from local jails to its facilities as quickly and safely as possible. At times, we have suspended transport from communities with outbreaks in their detention facilities in consultation with health officials. Our ability to continue transport from facilities with active outbreaks is limited by the number of quarantine beds the department has available. Recognizing the strain this places on our local partners, the department is actively exploring other avenues to address its quarantine needs, and we stand ready to assist Montana sheriffs in any way feasible.”

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Bullock wrote that “our public health officials have counseled the best way to keep COVID-19 out of congregate care
facilities is to take the public health precautions necessary to contain the spread in our communities. As we’ve discussed previously, as leaders in your community, your voice matters in encouraging people to wear masks, maintain social distancing and avoid large gatherings. These practices are all critical both inside and outside your facilities to mitigate the spread of the virus. Analysis by state epidemiologists shows that staff were the initial source of more than 50 percent of the outbreaks in detention centers.”

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In Cascade County, the first positive COVID-19 case was an inmate, but he had been held in the detention center for well over two weeks meaning someone else in the facility passed it to him.

Since then, the number of positive cases at the jail is nearing 200, according to numbers last updated by Slaughter on Sept. 22.

The county has had several disputes with the state regarding the jail in recent years and last summer, the county sued the DOC over unpaid fees for housing state inmates.

Tensions continue between local judicial branch and sheriff’s office

This year, the overcrowding has continued to be a point of contention with the state and the COVID-19 outbreak has caused tension with the sheriff’s office and the local judicial branch.

Several people being held at the Cascade County Adult Detention Center are refusing to take the COVID-19 tests being offered weekly.

County officials say it’s been about 7-10 people weekly who have refused the test.

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Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and County Attorney Josh Racki have said they cannot force a person to take a medical test outside of a court order.

Earlier this month, District Court Judge Elizabeth Best issued an order regarding a pending trial in her court and another blanket order requiring the jail to test “all inmates for COVID-19, with the regularity recommended by public health officials and infectious disease experts, using tests which are minimally invasive but effective. Tests used should return results within a maximum of 72 hours.”

That order doesn’t address a case pending in her court and Racki said his office or the sheriff’s office could challenge it, but opted not to since they had already been conducting weekly COVID-19 testing of inmates and detention center staff.

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The jail, nor the county or local providers, have control over the state’s turnaround time for test results.

In her order for a trial pending before her court, Best ordered that the defendant and all personnel involved in his transport be tested daily for COVID beginning three days before the trial and continuing through the end.

Those tests, Best wrote, should be the quick tests, which, according to local and state public health officials are in limited supply and have specific protocols for when they should be used.

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That trial was continued so the issue is moot for the time being, but Racki said that “we would not have been able to comply, despite our best efforts, with that order.”

On Sept. 25, Trista Besich, director of Alluvion Health, told The Electric that results had been coming in within 24-72 hours, but for that week it had averaged 72-96 hours.

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“It fluctuates based on volumes and as the numbers have shown the last week or so, we’ve seen higher numbers across the state, which has been reflected in the turnaround times,” Besich said in an email. “We have coordinated with the state on all our protocols that utilize the rapid tests. Alluvion owns the equipment that processes the tests, but the specific Covid-19 test cartridge is supplied by the state, so we have made every effort to ensure utilization aligns with state priorities. After talking with the state, we offered an alternate protocol that blended the PCR swab testing that is sent out to the state and contracted labs with a rapid on the first day of court. Our hope was to balance the court’s desire for testing with a moderated approach that wouldn’t rapidly deplete the limited supply of rapid test cartridges.”

Racki said that the county submitted that proposed plan for trial COVID-19 testing, but didn’t hear back from the court.

Last week, one inmate who is awaiting trial refused to take the COVID-19 test and was in Judge Greg Pinski’s court for a status hearing.

The defendant refused to take the test and his attorney told the court she wouldn’t go to trial without him getting a test. The defendant told Pinski that he’d take a continuance before getting a COVID-19 test so Pinski continued his case, meaning his trial is pushed back and he’ll continue sitting in the county jail until then.

Racki’s office filed a notice with the court that the defendant refused to take the COVID-19 test, as he does weekly for any inmates who refuse, and Pinski opted not to hold him in contempt for “purportedly for violating an order issued by another district judge. This court did not enter the subject order nor assent to it, and there are serious constitutional and legal defects inherent in it,” Pinski wrote in his Sept. 28 order.