Greene County Jail— Avoiding a COVID outbreak
- Published: July 17, 2020
In late May, an inmate transferred to state prison from Greene County Jail was tested by the state for COVID-19 and found positive. The individual hadn’t displayed any symptoms, and had a normal temperature upon leaving the county jail, according to jail administrator Major Kirk Keller this week. Keller asked the state to re-test the inmate, but the state declined.
As a result of that positive test, Greene County was suspended from transferring inmates to state prison for two weeks. Some convicted offenders are transferred from the local jail to state detention to serve sentences in state prison, Keller explained. The jail now quarantines inmates for two weeks prior to transferring them to state custody. Also as a result of the positive test result, Greene County Public Health, or GCPH, launched a contact tracing investigation at the county jail. Seventy-one COVID-19 tests were administered as part of that investigation. One jail employee, who was asymptomatic, tested positive, according to Keller. No inmates were positive for the virus.
With two positive tests connected to the local jail in a pandemic now in its fifth month, Keller counts the county jail both lucky and conscientious. The jail’s total daily population has averaged between 233 and 144 during this time.
“We’ve had good success in keeping everyone safe,” he said of the jail’s overall response to COVID-19.
He highlighted a range of efforts including downsizing the jail population, which was accomplished by the courts in the early phase of the pandemic; limiting movement in and out of jail; implementing new health screening procedures; educating inmates on what Keller called “body awareness” regarding their distance to other inmates and staff; increasing the cleaning of the jail and the availability of cleaning supplies to inmates; and quarantining inmates in some circumstances.
“We really are trying to do everything, and so far it’s paying off,” Keller said.
However, the jail so far has not done mass testing of inmates and staff, and has tested at most 100 individuals, the majority connected to the contact tracing investigation in June. In 2019, there were 100 employees at the jail and a total annual population of about 4,500 inmates, with an average daily inmate population of 316.
Asked whether the jail should be doing mass testing, GCPH Commissioner Melissa Howell referred the News to a CDC guidance document, last updated May 7, that recommends testing based on exposure.
Mass testing in Ohio prisons, conducted in April until the state suspended the approach and returned to testing based on symptoms, found large numbers of positive individuals, many of whom were asymptomatic.
‘A cautionary tale’
Not all jails have had the same experience as Greene County. In nearby Montgomery County, local health officials last week reported 28 confirmed cases among inmates, out of a jail population of about 600, and five staff cases. Health authorities there are urging mass testing of inmates and staff, a move jail administrators and its medical provider currently are resisting.
Local attorney Ellis Jacobs has been among those calling for mass testing in the Montgomery County jail as part of a coordinated response to a situation he and other activists believe could become dangerous for inmates, staff and the surrounding community.
“If there’s a giant outbreak in this jail, it’s going to seed an outbreak in this county,” he said at a press conference called by the Montgomery County Jail Coalition on the issue last week.
Montgomery County is already an area of concern in the state for its rising COVID-19 case numbers. It is one of seven counties in Ohio classified as a “level 3” in the state’s new four-level alert system. State officials have described the county as a site of significant community spread of the illness, not traceable to any one source.
About 20% of inmates in Greene County Jail come from the city of Dayton, according to demographic data reported by outside firm HDR as part of a jail needs assessment conducted in 2018–2019. Currently, Greene County Jail selectively quarantines some inmates coming into the jail from hotspots, but doesn’t have enough quarantine space to do this extensively, according to Keller.
But there’s another reason why the Montgomery County situation is relevant to Greene County. Jacobs said by phone this week that the jail outbreak there is a “cautionary tale” for other jails, including the two adult detention facilities in Greene County.
“An outbreak in the jail is not theoretical. It can spread very rapidly,” he said.
That’s one factor motivating a group of local activists, Jacobs among them, to call on local jail administrators to do everything they can to prevent the rise and spread of COVID-19 in Greene County Jail. The group, the Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice, will be holding a press conference on the topic this Saturday, July 11, at 2 p.m. across from the county criminal justice complex on North Detroit Street in Xenia. Concerned citizens are welcome to attend the masked and socially distanced event.
“It’s the worst of two worlds,” local activist and retired sociologist Leon Anderson explained of his concerns about the vulnerability of the county jail to a COVID-19 outbreak. “You have a congregate setting where people can’t physically distance for space reasons, and you have jail churn — lots of movement in and out of jail.”
The Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice evolved out of a previous local citizen group that successfully campaigned against a county sales tax increase that would have resulted in the construction of a new and larger county jail. Voters rejected the tax increase in the extended March primary. The group, whose members are largely though not exclusively from Yellow Springs, has now turned its focus to county criminal justice reforms. Chief among these is reducing the local jail population, both in response to COVID-19 and as a permanent step toward jail reform.
Focus on decarceration
“Jails are ripe for spreading a virus. So we’re focused on decarceration,” Lindie Keaton, a local activist and a member of the coalition, said.
Decarceration is an effort to reduce the number of people in jail by ensuring that jail time is an option of last resort rather than a default setting for the criminal justice system, she explained. Efforts such as issuing citations rather than making arrests, reducing or eliminating cash bail and expanding jail alternatives such as parole and probation are all steps that could decrease the jail population.
In fact, many of these measures were implemented in Greene County on a temporary basis in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to county officials and local activists who have been in touch with county judges regarding the criminal justice system’s COVID-19 response.
In an immediate response to the crisis of the pandemic, judges “released a lot of inmates” by suspending their sentences, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer in an interview with the News in April. Most of those inmates will be returning to complete their sentences, he added.
That effort helped accomplish a rapid reduction in the county jail population, from about 300 prior to the pandemic to 137 on the day Fischer spoke with the News, April 17.
Beyond releasing existing inmates, judges took other measures to downsize the jail population, according to court administrator Mark Donatelli in an email to the News this week. These include reducing pre-trial detention for low-risk, nonviolent offenders and employing electronic monitoring and community control measures in lieu of jail for some low-risk offenders.
Jacobs, who has reached out to several Greene County judges about jail population reduction during the pandemic, said local courts additionally have adjusted their bail practices, releasing more people on their own recognizance. Local law enforcement agencies also have responded to the pandemic by seeking to limit the number of people arrested, Jacobs said.
Efforts by local courts follow the guidance offered in mid-March by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to reduce transmission of COVID-19.
Yet as communities and the courts reopen and return to normal practices, such efforts may be attenuating. As of early July, jail population numbers in Greene County now hover around 200 inmates, a rise of about 30% from the mid-April low.
“Why are the numbers coming back up?” Keaton asked, echoing similar questions voiced by Anderson and Jacobs.
It’s not an abstract question, Keaton added. More people in jail means more risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, she said — the exact scenario efforts to downsize the jail population in March and April sought to avoid.
A June 25 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, amplifies that perspective.
“Jail population mitigation needs to be a key part of the national response to COVID-19. If jails fail to drastically reduce their populations, COVID-19 could claim up to 100,000 more people than the current projections,” the report states.
The report notes wide variations in jails’ population reduction efforts, with a median reduction of 20% nationwide. Given its 50% reduction in the jail population early in the pandemic, Greene County has exceeded that measure.
Jail administrator Keller this week provided additional detail on the local jail population figures. In January, the average daily population was 263. In February, it was 287, while in March it fell to 233, then fell further to 144 in April. The May average was 174, and the June average rose further, to 187. The county jail has an overall capacity of 382 between its two facilities.
While the decreases were accomplished largely through deliberate changes on the part of the criminal justice system, Keller maintained that the subsequent rises reflect, in part, a return to earlier levels of crime, something that the News has not attempted to confirm.
“COVID is not scaring people from committing crimes,” he said.
Asked whether he was concerned about the rising jail population, Keller said he was not. The jail’s existing practices are designed to keep inmates and staff safe, he explained.
Asked further whether employees and inmates are required to wear facial coverings as part of the jail’s safety procedures, Keller said masks are provided to both groups, but are not mandated in most situations. He was unsure how many people within the jail wear them regularly.
Keller highlighted two new “fogging” machines recently purchased by the jail to disinfect areas through non-toxic aerosol sprays as among the extra safety precautions the jail was taking. And he contended that due to the jail’s response, inmates are “safer in our jail than out in the community.”
‘Most at risk’
Spokespersons from two national criminal justice reform groups contacted separately by the News this week disputed that perspective. They stated unequivocally that jails are ripe for COVID-19 outbreaks.
Wanda Bertram from Prison Policy Initiative and Sarah Minion from the Vera Institute of Justice each identified jail crowding, high turnover or “churn” of the jail population, poor sanitation, medical vulnerability of people in jail and limited or nonexistent jail medical services as factors that make jails, and the communities they’re located in, vulnerable to infectious disease.
“People in jail are among the most at risk” for contracting and spreading COVID-19, Minion said.
Jail administrators tend to downplay the risk, according to Bertram. “People will claim that they can contain the coronavirus,” she said. But that claim is belied by “how fast the virus can spread, even in cases where you’re keeping people mostly in their cells — which is problematic for other reasons,” she added.
Bertram was one of the contributors to the June 25 Prison Policy Initiative report, which graded states on their response to COVID-19 in jails and prisons. All states got failing or near-failing grades. Ohio was graded an “F.”
“The results are clear: despite all of the information, voices calling for action and the obvious need, state responses ranged from disorganized to ineffective, at best, to callously nonexistent, at worst,” the report concludes.
Ohio currently tops the nation in prison deaths from COVID-19, and is second to Texas in prison cases of the virus, according to a May 1 report from a different organization, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice.
Since mid-April, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, or ODRC, has published daily statistics related to COVID-19 in Ohio state prisons. As of Tuesday, July 7, at least 86 inmates and five staff have died of the illness, while 5,055 inmates and 838 staff have tested positive. Prison cases represent about 10% of the state’s overall COVID-19 case numbers, though extremely high numbers of positive tests relative to negative tests suggest that many more cases exist in prisons than are being detected.
The situation with jails is less clear, with information more fragmentary and less public-facing.
Since mid-April, the ODRC has received daily reports from county jails across the state regarding the number of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as the number of inmates in quarantine or isolation. That data isn’t cumulative, however, making a true picture of the impact of COVID-19 difficult to piece together from the day-by-day snapshots. The data is sent to some journalists on request, but is not reported publicly.
In response to a question from the News, a spokesperson for the ODRC, JoEllen Smith, said the department did not have a count of the cumulative cases of COVID-19 in jails. Regarding deaths related to COVID-19, she said there had been “no deaths reported to the Bureau attributed to COVID-19,” referring to the Bureau of Adult Detention, the ODRC division that oversees jails in the state. Such information is “self-reported to the Bureau by the jails,” she added. Smith did not respond to multiple News attempts to clarify if all jails were reporting to the ODRC, or just some.
Meanwhile, local activists and the county jail administrator are drawing very different conclusions regarding COVID-19 and the local jail. Local activists believe the pandemic underscores how many people can safely be released from jail, or avoid jail altogether, while the jail’s administrator sees the pandemic as proof of the need for a larger jail.
“COVID-19 could not be a better classroom for teaching how badly we need a new jail,” Keller said, citing space constraints that make social distancing, isolating and quarantining difficult to impossible. Jail staff have succeeded in keeping the virus out of the facility despite, not because of, the jail’s physical conditions, he contended.
Keaton offered a different view. The COVID-19 crisis “lays bare that we in no way need space to keep 500 people jailed in our county,” she said, referring to the proposal by the county to build a 500-bed jail. Substantial reductions in the jail population were accomplished in short order without the painstaking effort of reform, she pointed out. And that gives her hope for more lasting change, during and after the pandemic.
Anderson agreed. “It shows we can do it,” he said.