Guest Columnist

Linn County sheriff: Making the jail safer during the COVID-19 pandemic

Safety precautions, inmate furloughs, free phone calls in place of visitation

The Linn County Correctional Center and Linn County Courthouse on Mays Island as seen from the Alliant Energy Tower in C
The Linn County Correctional Center and Linn County Courthouse on Mays Island as seen from the Alliant Energy Tower in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

By design, jails are extremely susceptible to disease transmission, due to both the group-style housing of inmates and the necessity for both inmates and staff to frequently come and go from the facility. However, the administration of the Linn County Correctional Center has taken some proactive steps to help ensure the health and safety of our employees and the inmates, with whom we have been entrusted to ensure their safekeeping during the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

First, we have directed our employees to stay home when they are ill and we are continually encouraging our staff and inmates to use good hygiene practices, including basic hand-washing with soap and warm water and the frequent use of hand sanitizer. We are cleaning and disinfecting all areas of the jail more thoroughly and on a more frequent basis. All employees have also been provided training specific to health and safety procedures to be utilized during the COVID-19 virus.

We are screening all arrestees for COVID-19 before acceptance. This screening occurs in the sally port, before entering the intake area of the jail. Based on the screening results, arrestees with a temperature and showing signs of respiratory distress will be directed to a hospital for treatment or clearance, before being accepted.

Inmates who need to be isolated for flu-like symptoms other than COVID-19 will be housed in medical isolation status in cellblocks that are remotely located from other cellblocks in the jail. We employ a full-time nursing staff and contract with a local emergency room physician, all of whom have received special training in caring for sick patients.

With the court’s authorization, we are proactively reducing the jail’s population. We have furloughed those inmates that have been sentenced to serve time and those inmates on the work release program and are not accepting any defendants to serve time until after May 4th. We are also not accepting people arrested for simple or serious misdemeanor charges, except for a few specific court-directed offenses. Instead, these people will be released on-scene on a promise to appear.

We are reducing contact between inmates and outside visitors. We are prohibiting volunteers from entering the jail and inmate programming such as religious services and substance abuse prevention have been suspended. Inmate visitation has been suspended and attorneys are visiting their clients by using the same no-contact procedure the public previously utilized for visitation.

Because this process resulted in reduced visiting hours, we are allowing inmates to send out seven free letters per week and have worked with our inmate phone vendor to provide inmates with 60 minutes of free phone calls per week so that they can more easily stay in touch with family and friends.

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A kiosk has been installed in the jail lobby and we created an online link on our website to allow the pubic to deposit money via credit and debit card where money can be directly deposited in an inmate’s commissary or phone account. This will eliminate any handling of money between the public and staff.

We are also paying more attention to the health of our more vulnerable inmate population, including those who are elderly and those who have underlying health conditions making them more susceptible to disease.

Finally, we continue to maintain contact with our partners at Linn County Public Health, our fellow jail administrators through the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association, and the Iowa Department of Corrections, to ensure that we are all exchanging best practices.

Through all of these proactive efforts, our goal is to keep the COVID-19 virus out of the Linn County Correctional Center. However, if our efforts are thwarted and we find that the virus has entered the facility, we will deal with its effects quickly and swiftly to help ensure that it does not spread throughout the facility.

Brian D. Gardner is sheriff of Linn County.

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