For part of the day last Wednesday, staff at the King County Jail in downtown Seattle feared an inmate had been infected with the novel coronavirus. They sent the inmate to Harborview Medical Center and temporarily restricted the number of people entering and leaving the jail, but it turned out to be a false alarm. The inmate was treated for some other respiratory illness, according to the Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention.
While there have been no reports of anyone working or residing in the 50-plus jails across the state exhibiting symptoms of the virus, the incident showed that Washington jails are on heightened alert as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, given the close quarters inmates are confined to and the high turnover in the daily population as inmates are booked and released.
“It’s a venue where disease can get spread easily because it’s a congregate environment,” Dr. Marc Stern, a physician and affiliate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, said of the state’s jails. “It’s a double whammy — it’s a higher risk population (for contracting the virus) and you don’t have the freedom of sending them home. You can’t say, ‘Sorry, we’re not having jail today.'”
There are 37 county jails, 15 city jails and a handful of tribal jails in Washington, said John McGrath, the jail-services liaison for the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs (WASPC). Officials in all of them are increasing health screenings of incoming inmates, more frequently cleaning intake areas and common rooms, stockpiling surgical masks and other protective gear, and putting plans together to respond to a potential outbreak of the virus in the jails’ “closed environments,” he said.
Courthouses across the state are also taking precautions, with some municipal and district courts announcing partial closures or modified operations. Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens has also authorized presiding judges in trial courts to take measures to protect court personnel and members of the public, including relocating or modifying regular operations or suspending court rules to address emergency conditions, should the need arise, says a news release issued by Washington Courts.
King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers said less than half the usual number of prospective jurors are showing up for jury duty since the court announced this week that people in high-risk categories — including pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and people 60-years-old or older — were not being required to report. The court is also allowing far more hearings, mostly in civil and family-law cases but also in some criminal cases, to be conducted by phone and is expediting a project that was already in the works to allow both in-custody and out-of-custody criminal defendants to make appearances by video, he said.
Security screeners set up in the county’s courthouses also count daily visitors and the flow of people hasn’t gone down in the wake of the local outbreak, with 1,500 visits tracked at the downtown Seattle courthouse and another 1,000 at the Maleng Regional Center (RJC) in Kent every day, Rogers said.
“We’re not looking at one to two weeks but how to keep our business going over the next 10 months,” because no one can say if the virus will abate with warmer weather, he said. “We’re thinking long-term about how we can provide our important function in society while keeping the public appropriately safe.”
In Snohomish County Superior Court, prospective jurors are being staged in groups of no more than 50 people before they’re assigned to individual courtrooms and are gathering in rooms large enough to allow for social distancing, court administrator Shane Nybo said. On Monday, the court saw a 15% to 20% reduction in the number of people reporting for jury duty and this week the court is seeing whether staggering the start dates of criminal trials is effective in reducing contacts between people, he said.
“We haven’t experienced it long enough to know the overall impact,” Nybo said. “Obviously, we’re pretty fluid with people calling in and indicating they’re not feeling well or that they’re in a high-risk group and excusing them from service.”
Chris Gaddis, the Pierce County Superior Court administrator, said the court’s protocols haven’t changed and jury staff have always been authorized to send people home if they’re sick. The court is following guidelines from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and facilities management has stepped up daytime cleanings of commonly-touched surfaces, he said.
“It’s kind of wait-and-see,” Gaddis said. “If you’re sick, don’t come in. The justice system is rolling on without you.”
The challenge of containing the virus is far greater for jails, where people are brought in from the streets, compared to prisons, which house people convicted of felonies and tend to have more stable populations.
Stern, the UW affiliate professor, distributed a memo to WASPC members last week, first reported by the Marshall Project, outlining best practices based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He’s also part of a recently-established WASPC work group with representatives from all the state’s jails, who are participating in weekly conference calls and sharing information through WASPC’s member server.
In 2018, the last year statewide data is available, jails across Washington had a total average daily population of 12,326 inmates, overseen by roughly 3,000 corrections officers, said McGrath, WAPC’s jail-services liaison. A total of about 19,000 inmates are in state prisons.
“A jail is like a small city,” McGrath said, noting that in addition to corrections officers, jail staff includes medical providers, food-service providers and cleaning staff, with attorneys and other visitors adding to the numbers of people coming in and out of jails every day.
At the King County Jail in Seattle and RJC in Kent, Captain David Weirich said jail staff already have taken steps to prevent the virus’ spread. They include increased cleaning, enhanced health screenings at intake for people exhibiting symptoms before they’re assigned to housing units and directing staff who are able to telecommute to do so, he wrote in an email.
Patty Hayes, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, told Seattle City Council members Monday that the agency is also working to prepare for an outbreak in county jails.
“We know that at some point we’re going to have a case,” Hayes said during a council briefing. “My expectation is … we will see somebody who’s already been booked all of a sudden become symptomatic, just like has happened in nursing homes.”
Jails in Snohomish and Pierce counties are also implementing coronavirus-related protocols, according to officials there.
“Jail staff have worked with the Snohomish Health District to establish a process to screen, identify, isolate (if necessary), and treat any inmate who presents at the jail with symptoms,” Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email.
Last week, the jail started restricting all non-mandatory bookings and limiting unnecessary inmate programs that require outside volunteers to teach and inmates from different modules to share a classroom, Ireton wrote.
So far, the Pierce County Jail hasn’t restricted inmate visits or programs, but the option remains open in the event of an outbreak, said Captain Brian Sutherlin, a member of the sheriff’s corrections-division command staff. The county’s two jails are also working with public-health officials and have stepped up cleaning.
Sutherlin recalled a comment made by one jail staffer, who said, “They’re telling people to stay off cruise ships. Well, we have a cruise ship made of concrete and steel.”
Staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.