At Douglas County Jail, female inmates still sharing cells; total population has dropped

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Jail is shown in this file photo from February 2015.

A dwindling inmate population at the Douglas County Jail is educated about guidelines that public health officials have issued in the wake of the global pandemic coronavirus disease, COVID-19, but some women are still double-booked in cells, a spokeswoman said Friday.

Nationwide, advocates for criminal justice reform and some prison staff members have been calling for action to prevent what could become a very dangerous situation if the virus were to hit a prison, The Associated Press has reported. Limited space for inmates in an often overcrowded jail is nothing new to Douglas County, as the Journal-World has reported over the past several years, and concerns about that were a driving force behind the County Commission’s Jan. 29 decision to expand the 186-bed jail by 84 or more beds.

Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, told the Journal-World via email Friday that all of the jail’s male inmates were booked into single-cell housing. However, that’s not possible for the 28-bed women’s unit, which holds two beds in each of 14 cells, Hethcoat said. As of Friday, the jail was housing 17 female inmates, according to a weekly report from the county.

Hethcoat said 6-foot social distancing “is encouraged” during free time, and the facility is taking proactive measures with extra cleaning and disinfecting. She said the inmates have been educated on the importance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Other, larger county jails in Kansas and the Kansas City region, such as those in Sedgwick County, Kan., and Jackson County, Mo., have released 200 and 80 inmates, respectively, in recent weeks, the Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star have reported. The goals are to free up space to potentially isolate ill inmates down the line, save room for violent offenders and lower the risk of spreading the virus, those publications have reported.

However, a similar downturn in numbers may be happening on its own in Douglas County. Bookings at the jail have dropped significantly since public concern about the coronavirus disease has grown. On March 1, the seven-day rolling average number of individuals booked was 12.4; after Thursday, it was just 4.8, a Journal-World review of jail data has found.

The average population of the jail has been about 208 inmates for the past 12 months. That number has gradually dropped over the past couple of months: from 198 on Jan. 31 to 178 on March 6, according to the county’s weekly reports. By Friday, the total had dropped to 141 inmates — about 38.4% below average.

The sheriff has been granted the authority to release some inmates who may be at greater risk for COVID-19 or who are showing symptoms on 14-day furloughs to self-quarantine.

On March 18, Hethcoat said one individual who was arrested on a warrant was released at intake to self-quarantine for 14 days because he had direct ties to a high-risk area for COVID-19. On Friday, she said there was no update to the number of furloughs granted to inmates in custody. The jail has been taking some new precautions, though.

“As previously reported, all individuals brought into the correctional facility have their temperature taken and are verbally screened for Coronavirus symptoms before they enter the main facility,” Hethcoat said. “New inmates are being housed in the Booking unit for an additional 72-hour period to watch for possible Coronavirus symptoms.”

Hethcoat has also told the Journal-World that the jail’s existing facility is capable of handling medical quarantine. On Friday, she said that two individuals had been quarantined because of recent travel; another had been quarantined with possible symptoms but has since been medically cleared by LMH Health, Hethcoat said. As of Friday afternoon, no one was quarantined.

Inmates have had even more limited exposure to the outside world than usual, also. The courts have limited hearings to emergency matters only, as the Journal-World has reported, and anything that can be done via “electronic audio-visual communication” should be, according to the Kansas Supreme Court’s order on the subject.

A new order from the Douglas County District Court, effective Tuesday, suspended work release for jail inmates. That order affected seven current inmates, Hethcoat said Friday.

The jail also halted visitation effective Tuesday, coinciding with the county’s “stay at home” order. Instead, inmates are being allowed two free 15-minute phone calls per week, Hethcoat said.

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