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December 2020 | Volume 13 | Issue 12

Through the Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center (CRI-TAC), the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) has assisted in monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on the law enforcement profession. Through this effort and in working with sheriffs across the United States, the NSA has taken an active role in listening to difficulties, sharing information and resources, and providing valuable insights to the field at large in working to face the unique challenges brought about by the pandemic. Of critical note is the impact of COVID-19 on correctional facilities. There are three phases a jail will inevitably need to address when facing the possibility of a pandemic: (1) preparation, (2) prevention, and (3) management.

In the preparation phase, the facility should build or strengthen relationships with public health officials in its community. If possible, the facility should consult a medical expert in epidemiology or infectious diseases with correctional experience. The facility should also begin to identify areas that can be used for isolation or quarantine, considering whether single-cell isolation or quarantine is possible or if cohort housing will be necessary. In addition, leadership needs to ensure that staffing capabilities are sustainable or, if not, that there is a plan in place to manage personnel shortages. Furthermore, take inventory of both cleaning and medical supplies as well as personal protective equipment (PPE), and identify multiple sources for replenishing them as the need arises.

Sheriff Nick Cocchi of the Hampden County (Massachusetts) Sheriff’s Department (HCSD) went in-house for his agency’s PPE needs. Incarcerated individuals in the vocational program of York Street Industries, the corrections industry of the HCSD, shifted their focus from uniforms and upholstery to face masks, shields, and medical gowns to help ensure proper PPE is available.

During the prevention phase, the focus is on stemming the spread of the disease inside the facility. At the most basic level, this means an expanded cleaning schedule with frequent cleaning of surfaces and objects that are touched often while ensuring incarcerated individuals and staff have access to necessary hygiene supplies such as soap and water or hand sanitizer. Facilities may also implement simple screening procedures for new intakes, staff, and visitors that include both a verbal screening and temperature check. If possible, consider limiting or temporarily halting nonmedical transfers in and out of the facility and encourage noncontact or telephonic options for visitations, unless in-person visits are legally required. Facilities should also consider temporary suspension of any work release programs that require individuals (both incarcerated individuals and staff) to move in and out of the facility frequently.

Wood County (Ohio) Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn began providing free video visitation options because he understood the value visitation can have to the morale and well-being of incarcerated individuals.

Perhaps the most difficult step to navigate during prevention for many facilities has been testing—both in acquiring tests and in determining proper testing procedures. Tests for the virus, rather than for the antibody, should be conducted when possible, because viral tests can diagnose a current infection while antibody testing detects only past infection. It will be important to determine testing purpose—who is getting tested and why. Ideally, everyone should be tested, but this precaution must often be balanced against practical resource constraints, which may vary from one facility to another. For example, is everyone in the facility getting tested? If so, how often will the tests occur? Are only those with known or suspected exposure getting tested? Are those without a known or suspected exposure but coming into the facility from a community with moderate or high levels of infection being tested? These questions should be taken into consideration while also taking access to tests into account.

Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff Tom Dart credits “aggressive testing” as the reason that the virus hasn’t spread as rapidly in his facilities as it has in others across the country.

If discovered that the virus has entered the facility, management to mitigate spread is critical. Steps taken during this phase can and should include suspension of all nonmedical transfers both in and out of the facility, continued screening procedures when planning the intake or release of incarcerated individuals, and continued coordination with public health officials to help manage the spread of the virus. Staff within the facility should ensure that proper PPE is being worn correctly and in adherence with established guidelines from the medical community. Clear communication from leadership to both staff and incarcerated individuals about the status of the virus within the facility is key. “Town hall” style meetings have been successful at accomplishing wide dissemination of information while also allowing questions to be asked and answered in a transparent manner.

Richmond City (Virginia) Sheriff Antoinette Irving invited Dr. Danny Avula, Director of the Richmond City Health Department and Henrico County Health Department, to her jail, and both spent an hour answering questions from the inmates. The town hall was livestreamed on the Richmond City Health District’s Facebook page.

At this point, most facilities will determine a need to either isolate or quarantine individuals. Isolation separates symptomatic individuals from the rest of the population and should begin immediately at the appearance of symptoms. The length of isolation will vary, and facilities should consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC) guidelines for more information. Quarantine, on the other hand, is for asymptomatic individuals—both staff and incarcerated individuals—who have been or are in close contact with known or suspected cases of the disease. This should occur once the contact has been identified and should continue in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Although presented as three discrete phases, this cycle of preparation, prevention, and management should be a continuous process for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat to the health and safety of individuals living or working in correctional facilities. If your organization is interested in receiving technical assistance on corrections or jail operations or other critical need areas, please reach out to the CRI-TAC.

Learn More

To learn more about the CRI-TAC, download a brochure, or request assistance for your agency, visit the CRI-TAC website.

Chelsea Rider, Communications and Marketing Specialist
National Sheriffs’ Association

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