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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Family Members Say More Should Have Been Done To Prevent Washington County Jail COVID-19 Outbreak

Nighttime photo of a crowd wearing masks and holding candles.
Lexi Peery
Family and community members gathered outside Purgatory Correctional Facility Friday night to protest conditions around a COVID-19 outbreak there.

One-third of the inmates at Washington County’s jail have tested positive for COVID-19 and family members say officials didn’t provide adequate protection against the virus. 

At a candlelight vigil Friday night outside Purgatory Correctional Facility, demonstrators said inmates weren’t given masks prior to the outbreak and haven’t had access to soap and sanitizer. 

Christine Visser’s husband, Brian, is an inmate at Purgatory. Visser said he has heart and lung problems and has tested positive for COVID-19. She said she tried getting him into a different facility before the outbreak, but was unsuccessful.

“It makes me angry, that they could have prevented a lot of this,” Visser said. “We knew the COVID was going to get in here, it was bound to. But they could have given them a fighting chance at least.”

The outbreak started after three inmates tested positive for the coronavirus the weekend of June 20. Since then, inmates from all but two blocks have been tested and quarantined, jail officials said. 

Karen Green said her husband, Anthony, also has underlying health problems but hasn’t contracted the virus yet. She said this is the most scared she’s seen him in their 13 years of marriage.

“He does make a lot of dumb mistakes like everyone else has, but I don’t think he should be paying for it with not proper medical care in here,” Green said.

Sydni Makemo, an ACLU coordinator in Southern Utah, led the vigil. She criticized how the jail has handled the outbreak.

“Getting arrested should not be a death sentence — dying in jail is the worst way to go,” she said.

Purgatory Deputy Chief Jake Schultz disputed some of the claims made by family members at the vigil. 

He said symptomatic inmates had access to masks prior to the outbreak and that the commissary — where inmates can purchase soap — was temporarily closed because so many inmates had tested positive. 

“There’s cause for concern, it’s a pandemic, and it’s in the facility,” Schultz said. “But it’s also under control. We’re quarantining and we’re testing. Our numbers are high because we decided to expand the testing to the entire facility.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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