Hardin County Sheriff Dave McDaniel knows there's no social distancing in jail. The best he can hope for is that the efforts undertaken to protect the health of prisoners and staff pays off.
Especially now with the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
“We have an incredibly clean facility anyway, but we’ve upped the amount of cleaning we’re doing,” McDaniel said. “We’re taking all the precautions that we can control that we can. We’re constantly getting emails from the state jail inspector with things that they’re recommending or encouraging.”
McDaniel said he's also getting information from the federal level as well. The variety of jails in Iowa makes the precautions almost as daunting as the disease itself.
“There’s so many different jails just across Iowa that it’s not a cookie cutter type solution,” McDaniel said. “And the situation is incredibly fluid and changing every day.”
McDaniel said the Hardin County Jail, which has a maximum capacity of 107 inmates, usually averages about 85. But Jail Administrator Nick Whitmore said there are only about 35 people being detained there currently. In an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some jails and prisons have been directed to release non-violent inmates to reduce the population. McDaniel said that hasn't been done here.
“What we have done is meet with the county attorney and have decided that we have the option, at least temporarily, for a site release and issue a court date for the non-violent and lesser offenses that we typically take into custody instead of transporting them and taking them into custody," McDaniel said.
Whitmore said there have been a couple of “humanitarian releases” of non-violent inmates who are at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications due to age and/or medical conditions. As a contract jail for several counties and agencies - many of Hardin County's inmates were not arrested in Hardin County - other measures have been taken to lower the population.
“We dropped to about 35 detainees right now just to give people a place to spread out and not be confined to one space,” Whitmore said. “While we have local arrests that we screen very carefully, we are requiring those from other agencies or jurisdictions to be held at some other location for a period of time before we take them.”
Whitmore said the extra precautions are especially necessary for places like jails.
“We learned from China that their department of corrections took a pretty big hit,” Whitmore said. “We’re an institution a lot like nursing homes and hospital where once it gets into your population and your staff, it spreads like wildfire.”
During a typical shift, three to six guards and staff are on duty. While the number of prisoners may decrease as the pandemic continues, McDaniel said the number of guards and staff will not.
“While we have to be cognizant of COVID-19, we can’t jeopardize staff safety by reducing our staffing,” McDaniel said. “We still have detainees in there that we have got to be cognizant of the threat level.”
McDaniel said the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office and the jail are trying to control what is being introduced into the jail. That includes screening the health of inmates and staff and visitors.
“Obviously in our world we don’t have the luxury of social distancing,” McDaniel said. “We are checking temps, running people through a health check and travel history and that type of thing. If there are concerns, we’re making other arrangements. We haven’t had to yet.”
McDaniel said the jail contracts with a medical service that has nurses on staff and doctors readily available. He said the health care of the facility is “pretty top notch.”
“We have medical available at all times,” McDaniel said. “From a medical standpoint, we probably have more availability to nurses and doctors in a short time frame than the general public.”
So far, McDaniel said there have been no signs of the coronavirus or COVID-19.
“We have such a diverse group in there,” McDaniel said. “But we haven’t had any illnesses as of yet.”
But if the coronavirus does get in, it could be a big problem.
“If we do get somebody positive in our jail, obviously the exposure potential is significantly higher than in the general public,”McDaniel said. “Our population is confined basically to the jail. We fully understand that and are trying to do everything we can to reduce the risk of introducing the disease into the jail.”
But there are no guarantees.
“It’s one of those prepare-for-the-worst-but-hope-for-the-best things,” McDaniel said. “I feel we are doing that. We run a tight ship anyway when it comes to cleanliness. I’m not saying that’s enough, but I don’t know any other precaution other than denying access to any new detainees and that’s not realistic. There will always be people who need to be in here.”