The Douglas County corrections director is trying to clear out a housing unit in Omaha’s crowded jail so that he can quarantine any inmates who might catch the coronavirus illness.
Michael Myers said Tuesday that he had directed his staff to identify the 100 safest inmates to release, people charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses such as driving with a suspended license.
Myers will try to work with public defenders, prosecutors and judges on lowering bail so some of those people can be released under supervision. The goal is to free up a 32-bed unit and reserve it in case inmates contract COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, and can’t be sent to a hospital.
It’s one of several steps the Douglas County Jail is taking to keep COVID-19 out of one of Nebraska’s most populous lockups, or prevent an outbreak if the disease gets in among the 1,200-plus inmates. Myers briefed the Douglas County Board about the measures and spoke about them in an interview.
Also Tuesday, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services issued a statement saying it would use a “defend in place” strategy. Staff members and inmates have been advised that sanitary precautions are the best defense against contracting the illness, the department said in a press release.
“We are emphasizing hand-washing, elbow bumps, cough control and other steps to prevent transmission of the virus,” said Scott Frakes, state corrections director.
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He said the state prisons have the ability to quarantine inmates as needed and may in the future have to limit visitation.
In Omaha, the Douglas County Jail is screening newly arrested people while they are being booked. They’re taking temperatures and asking questions about symptoms, travel and contact to determine if the new inmates need to be tested for COVID-19. By late Tuesday, no tests had been required.
The jail also ordered extra masks and sanitation supplies but wasn’t able to get as much as it wanted due to short supply, Myers said.
Myers has suspended all volunteer visits and services from clergy and other people from the community. He started that on Friday, after the first coronavirus case was identified in Omaha.
“That is to reduce the number of people coming into the secure perimeter in the jail just to the security staff and our internal services that have to keep functioning,” he said.
The jail has not cut off visits from inmates’ families yet. Those do not bring visitors into secure areas where they have personal contact with inmates. But they bring hundreds of people to the jail lobby daily, where they could spread the virus to one another or the jail lobby staff. Myers is asking the company that provides the county’s Internet-based jail visits to cut its rates so more people can visit that way, if needed.
“I’m still allowing visitation, but if there’s much community spread I might have to lock the place down completely,” Myers said. “I don’t want to, unless it becomes a public health emergency and I have to do it for public safety.”
The jail also has stocked up on extra equipment so more people can be monitored while they await trial or serve sentences.
That includes GPS tracking devices and remote breath test devices, with which people who are ordered not to drink alcohol can submit their own tests instead of having to be breath-tested in person. The devices have cameras and use facial recognition to prevent cheating, Myers said.
If someone at the jail does test positive for COVID-19, it would be best to send them out to a hospital for treatment, Myers said. But that might not be possible because of the inmate’s charges or behavior.
The housing unit where he proposes to keep people was recently renovated. It has individual cell doors through which food, legal papers and medicine could be handed.
Myers said he has been having conversations with fellow criminal justice agency leaders that are similar to ones he had last summer, when he pleaded for help after the jail hit an all-time-high population of 1,390.
“You’re trying to reduce the risk,” Myers said. “But you can’t eliminate it.”