CORONAVIRUS

Linn and Johnson county jail inmates remain free of coronavirus

Two Linn County staffers, though, have tested positive

Linn County Correctional Center employees take the garbage out April 1. While no inmates at the facility have tested pos
Linn County Correctional Center employees take the garbage out April 1. While no inmates at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, two staff members who had some contact in the jail have. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Both the Linn and Johnson county jails are following protocols to stop the spread of coronavirus — including handing out face masks to inmates and cleaning aggressively — that they believe are proving effective because no inmates have tested positive for the disease so far.

Besides extensive cleaning, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said, jailers are taking temperatures of inmates and issuing them masks, keeping those with any flu-like symptoms separate from the general population and having fewer inmates overall.

A “handful” of inmates showing some symptoms are in isolation — separate cells from the general population, Gardner said.

Johnson County Sheriff Sgt. Brad Kunkel said jailers there are also doing “constant and vigilant cleaning” and the facility has room to isolate up to 40 inmates “in an extreme” situation. But none were in isolation as of Tuesday.

All the staff is required to wear face masks, shields and gloves, Kunkel said.

Inmates go through similar screening processes as they do in Linn and are given masks during the booking process, but not issued ones later.

Worrisome incidents

Two Linn County staff members who has some degree of contact with the jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

A deputy tested positive April 19 but should return to work in the next few weeks, Gardner said. He was fever-free when he entered the jail, but became ill near the end of his shift April 16 with a 102-degree fever. After his diagnosis, he was advised to isolate under health guidelines.

Gardner said the deputy had worked in booking that day, but had contact with only two inmates that night.

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Gardner noted that exposure means a person was within 6 feet for more than two minutes with the infected person. It doesn’t mean the exposed person is infected.

Administrators and health officials identified 11 exposed co-workers who continued to report to work as long as they remained without symptoms. It was determined, after talking with the health department, that no inmates were exposed by the deputy.

Last Friday, a custodian who last worked in the jail April 21 also tested positive. The custodian didn’t have a fever when he came to the jail but started having symptoms later and tested positive, Gardner said.

The jail’s video system showed the employee complied with the face mask protocol put in place after the deputy became ill, Gardner said.

All employees are required to wear face masks while in the jail and the inmates are advised to wear the masks.

“It’s difficult to force (inmates) to wear the masks,” Gardner said. “If an inmate refused to do it and tried to fight a deputy, that would increase contact, which we are trying to avoid.”

Kunkel said none of the Johnson staff or inmates had tested positive. Two inmates with symptoms were tested, but were negative.

Pleas for bail

Linn County has to deal with a larger jail population, but has reduced those numbers.

On March 18, there were 328 inmates and as of Monday there were 228. The numbers rapidly went down when the court released inmates serving time on misdemeanors and on work release status, and allowed the jail to schedule defendants who have been convicted of misdemeanors to serve their jail time after June 1.

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Johnson County has done the same, going from 63 inmates on March 1 to 34 Tuesday. On Tuesday, eight Johnson County inmates were being held in other counties. None of the inmates charged with more serious felonies and violent crimes have been released, Kunkel said.

Defense lawyers have sought reduced bail for defendants before trial, citing risks of exposure to the coronavirus in the jails. But most of the 6th Judicial District judges have not lowered bails for the more serious felony charges.

In federal court, defense attorneys are also making the same arguments, asking that defendants be released or given bail. But depending on the charge, not many have been successful with the argument.

Taking other steps

Both county jails are giving cleaning supplies to inmates, who are encouraged to frequently clean their cell areas.

Linn County is laundering jail jumpsuits and bedding more often.

“We are also using a sanitizing/disinfecting machine for cleaning in the correctional center,” Gardner said. “We used it after the deputy and facilities employee tested positive to clean the jail. The chemical is in short supply or we would use it more. It’s looks like a steamer wand and puts out fine mist that just attaches to everything.”

Gardner noted that jails are much like nursing homes in the sense that inmates are impacted by people going in and out. Last month, the jail stopped all in personal visitors and restricted attorney and investigator visits with inmates. Most attorneys are staying in touch with their clients by phone.

Johnson County doesn’t allow in-person visits for now.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.