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Crowded jails could become hot spots for coronavirus

by Maggie Quinlan For Tribune
| March 21, 2020 12:00 AM

Tonight, inmates in the Asotin County Jail will sleep two to three people in most cells.

There’s a bunk bed and, in some, a mattress on the floor about 2 feet from the cell’s shared toilet, Asotin County Jail Commander Jim Smith said.

Asotin, Whitman and Spokane county jails are all at more than 90 percent capacity, according to data from inmate rosters and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

With officers coming and going and frequent arrest and release rates, jails are a concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely not the best situation here,” Smith said.

Prisons have become breeding grounds in other nations battling the outbreak, leading to the temporary release of 54,000 Chinese prisoners in early March. A U.S. COVID-19 case hasn’t been confirmed in a corrections facility yet, but more people are incarcerated here per capita than any other country worldwide.

In local counties, ideas about capacity have changed since jails were built. In Whitman, the jail has a cap of 34 inmates according to the sheriffs and police chiefs association, and on an average day in 2018 it was at 118 percent capacity. Friday, the jail was 94 percent full with 32 inmates.

But, to Whitman County Jail Commander Scotty Anderson, 32 inmates is roomy. Anderson said the jail was designed in the 1980s to house 24 people, but he thinks of capacity in terms of the 60 beds available today. Some inmates sleep communally in a room full of bunk beds, while others in higher security areas sleep two to a cell.

The Spokane County Jail was reduced to 93 percent capacity Friday after starting the week at 113 percent capacity, with 906 inmates.

“Spokane is filled to the brim, truly filled to the brim,” Anderson said.

The Bail Project sent a letter to Spokane Judge Harold Clarke III, all three Spokane County commissioners and other local leaders asking that they release some inmates to prevent creating virus hot spots.

“An outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail would be swift and deadly,” the letter reads.

In response to requests from jail officials, Spokane County’s district and superior courts drafted lists of inmates who could be released. The Spokane Municipal Court issued an emergency order Monday, which sent 48 inmates home, but the two county courts will still decide who else to release on a case-by-case basis.

How many inmates are released from Whitman and Asotin county jails will largely depend on Whitman County Superior Court Judge Gary Libey, who presides in Asotin as well. Libey signed emergency orders in both counties Tuesday postponing court dates until April to reduce COVID-19 spread, though early or temporary releases were not addressed.

Libey said he won’t make a blanket decision.

“They’ve got a bigger jail in Spokane … so they might not have time to do a case-by-case basis,” he said. “But I certainly have time. Even doing the duties in Asotin, Columbia, Garfield and Whitman county, I’ve got the time.”

Libey said he hopes to release nonviolent, nonserious offenders on a promise to appear in court. But it will be up to attorneys to make motions to reconsider pretrial release conditions.

“The major concern is public safety in both ways, the virus and future criminal conduct,” Libey said.

Twenty-two of 39 inmates in Asotin County Jail Monday were there for violent offenses, Smith said, and another four had threatened bodily harm. With about 20 inmates, he could house each person in separate cells.

For now he’s leaving two cells empty for newcomers, where officers can watch them for symptoms before they join the rest of the jail’s population. In order to leave those cells vacant, other people must share rooms.

Anderson said in a county jail setting, the hard part is frequent arrests.

“More times than not, somebody gets released when they go to court,” Anderson said. “But they’re here for a few days.”

The sheriff and a chief of police in Asotin County have restricted arrests for certain offenses to lower the transient inmate population, Smith said.

To combat coronavirus, all three county jails are practicing more regular decontamination and screening new inmates with thermometers, according to their commanders. Asotin County Jail has eliminated visitors, while Whitman County Jail’s visitors are already separated from inmates by a sheet of glass.

Asotin officials have begun plans to build a new jail, but it won’t be complete for at least three years.

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