Seven cases of COVID-19 were confirmed this week among the Clark County Jail’s inmate population.
The jail said in a news release that the positive cases were “localized to one small housing unit.”
After the first inmate tested positive, the jail consulted with Clark County Public Health, and all inmates in the housing unit were tested for the virus, according to the jail.
“Those with positive results were transferred to the jail’s negative air flow medical housing area,” the news release says.
Separately, over the past two weeks, four staff members were also confirmed to have COVID-19. The employees are being treated and will return to work once they’re cleared by their doctors.
“We have been expecting an increase in COVID-19 cases in the inmate population as cases increase in the community,” Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop said.
Public Health is working closely with the jail to identify cases and take steps to ensure the virus does not spread to more inmates, according to Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director.
Criminal justice officials have met several times this year to discuss the inmate population at the jail and the steps needed to prevent them from getting the virus.
The group — which included Bishop, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik and Superior Court Judge Scott Collier, among others — started meeting in March to discuss ways to reduce the jail’s population as COVID-19 began affecting everyday life and institutional procedures here and nationwide. The population went from 601 on March 17 to 417 three days later, according to numbers provided by the jail.
General criteria were established for the types of crimes and cases assessed for potential release into pretrial supervision. The criteria includes nonviolent cases, such as drug and property crimes. No cases involving sex offenses are reviewed, and generally, no domestic violence cases meet the criteria.
Bishop previously said social distancing was the primary concern. Having fewer people housed spreads out the population, to distance them in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
In mid-March, the facility housed 313 inmates at one point, a low not seen by Bishop since 1985. The releases allowed the jail to avoid an outbreak, unlike other facilities nationwide, Bishop said. By Nov. 3, at least 169,286 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 5 percent increase from the week before, according to The Marshall Project.
Clark County Jail’s total population fluctuated around 350 inmates for months.
But the population started to creep back up. Sheriff Chuck Atkins said he noticed the population was climbing in August. On Thursday, an inmate roster posted online showed 442 inmates being housed at the jail.
Bishop said in an email that he could not comment on whether the larger population was partly to blame for this week’s outbreak, stating epidemiology is out of his area of expertise.
“I can say we continue to take proper precautions as outlined in the Center for Disease Control on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities. In addition, we also work closely with (Public Health) and our contract medical provider,” Bishop said.
Officials met in mid-September to explore solutions for the increased population. The consensus at the end of the meeting was that the sheriff’s office would begin filling positions left vacant since March. Once it has the employees, the current course of action calls for the use of the county’s Jail Work Center, a 100-bed, minimum-security facility that remains open but has not been used for housing for five months. Not all of the vacancies need to be filled to use the work center.
Bishop said he and other jail officials will have a work session with the county Dec. 2 to discuss the work center’s possible use, as well as other jail-related matters.
It is critical that the jail and other correctional facilities statewide once again reduce their inmate populations, said Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director of ACLU Washington’s Smart Justice campaign.
“We’re nowhere near done with COVID, and there are new people coming into the jail, staff coming and going from the community as cases continue to rise, so it’s important that population be significantly reduced,” Hawk said.
The ACLU does not have the data for Clark County, but elsewhere in the state, prosecutors are asking for bail in cases and people aren’t being released for alleged offenses that they may have been released on a few months ago, Hawk said.
“It’s not being taken as urgent of a matter despite the (COVID-19) numbers going up,” she said.