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State Jails And Prisons Hoping To Prevent Coronavirus Outbreak

Photo of fence outside Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah.
Kelsie Moore
A coronavirus outbreak in Utah's detention facilities would be "catastrophic," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.

Updated 6:41 p.m. MDT 4/2/2020: This story has been updated to reflect an announcement from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office Thursday. 

Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said Thursday the state’s first inmate has tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate was one of six to have been tested for the virus out of roughly 1,400 countywide and is currently under isolation. 51 other inmates from the same unit have also been moved to medical quarantine cells at Metro Jail from the smaller Oxbow facility. 

Rivera said despite an earlier report that a prisoner had tested positive after leaving jail, her office doesn’t know how that person got it. Officers have since isolated everyone he came into contact with. No information about how the two inmates contracted the virus was provided. 

“I could tell you no now and by the end of the day, there may be one,” she said Wednesday, before the most recent test came back positive. “I don't know, because we are still booking people into the facility. But we're taking every precaution that we can.”

A spokesperson with the Sheriff's office said a deputy and civilian employee have also tested positive for COVID-19, though both have not been in the facility in the last five days.

The cases are the first in Utah’s prisons and jails, though the coronavirus has begun to surface in others across the country. Since March 22, detention facilities nationwide have reported 226 inmates and 131 staff with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a Reuters survey. In response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons this week announced the start of a two-week prisoner lockdown

The lockdown won’t apply in Utah, because there are no federal prisons. Still, state and local officials say they are taking precautions to prevent an outbreak, which could spread quickly. 

“These facilities are not built for a pandemic,” said Britnee Webb with the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network. “They're not built for this type of emergency, so there really isn't space to keep people 6 feet apart.”

In Salt Lake County — which has nearly half of the state’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the state’s largest jail — Rivera said jails there are well-prepared for an outbreak, spurred in part by preparations made after a Hepatitis-A breakout several years ago. Still, they are not taking the federal approach of a system-wide lockdown.

“Our biggest concern would be when you have inmates who are spending a lot of time locked up, it tends to cause anxiety and anger,” she said. “We just don't want to do that if we don't have to. And right now we don't see a reason that we would have to do that.”

Rivera said offenders are still getting booked in the county’s two jails daily, but staff monitor everyone coming in for potential symptoms, no longer allow visitors and have ramped up cleaning efforts. Due to security concerns though, she said inmates are not allowed to have cleaning supplies of their own. 

No inmates or staff in state prisons have tested positive for the virus, and only one inmate has been tested so far, according to Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections. Some staff are self-quarantining, however, either based on symptoms or after coming into contact with others who’ve tested positive. 

He said the corrections department is also not considering a system-wide lockdown yet, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

“At this point, everything is on the table,” he said. “This is fast moving, it's ever changing.”

Haddon said the plan now is to isolate anyone who shows symptoms or may have had contact with somebody with COVID-19 as quickly as possible. If it’s an inmate, they would be put into a mask and housed in a different area of the prison, though space is limited. 

If a large number of staff were forced to self-quarantine, Haddon said there are non-prison staff his department could tap to help out. And in a worst case scenario, he would also reach out to former workers who have since retired.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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