Strict COVID-19 measures in effect for inmates at Lawrence Co. Jail

Prior to and during booking at the Lawrence County Jail intake room, inmates are screened thoroughly for COVID-19 and immediately given a mask to wear. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

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DEADWOOD — With a reported 50% of prisoners across the state infected with COVID-19, Lawrence County law enforcement officials are doing their best to mitigate the pandemic on the front end.

“That is mission number one. To keep it from coming in,” said Capt. Tavis Little of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO). “Because once it gets in in a controlled environment like that, with the number of people that come and go, it would be extremely difficult for us to keep that facility up and running if half the inmates and half the staff had it.”

So, just how many inmates at the Lawrence County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 thus far?

“Through the duration of the virus, we have had three,” Little said. “The three cases that we had in the jail were all in relatively close proximity in time to each other. We dealt with all three pretty aggressively, and we caught it with our screening tools within the jail. Their temperature was checked twice a day, the jailers are really tuned in to flu-like symptoms”

Little said that when one developed symptoms, he was dealt with right away and that while they were dealing with that inmate, the others were tested.

“We had another positive result within that. At that point in time, I made the determination that everybody with this close proximity and exposure to a laboratory tested case, I need to look into their specific criminal case, talk with the court system, and make the appropriate adjustments so that we can continue to provide for their health and welfare, but at the same time, keep their criminal justice file in a good standing,” Little said. “We don’t want to get them jammed up. Because they’re out of jail when they shouldn’t be. So, it’s kind of a two-prong with the health and welfare being the most important, of course.”

The three positive COVID-19 cases occurred mid-to-late-summer.

One member of the jail staff, a Lawrence County employee, has tested positive thus far.

“And immediately when they become symptomatic or test positive, we send them home and await test results and if they test positive, we follow the guidelines of the Department of Health for when they can return to work,” Little said.  

For 2020, the Lawrence County Jail is averaging 167 bookings per month, an average of between five and six prisoners per day.

Little said the sheriff’s office was one of the local agencies that got out in front of recognizing a need to screen people coming in to the jail.

“Because a virus in a controlled place like that is so impacting, once it gets in through your doors,” Little said.

To prevent the virus from getting a chokehold on the jail, the office reached out to other agencies in the area and looked at Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We came up with a screening tool that we use, here, at the jail, but we also pushed that out to all the agencies that bring inmates to our jail, so that they were aware of what the screening criteria were and could start some of that screening before they even got here,” Little said.

Before individuals being booked into the jail are even allowed in the building, they go through a screening process that begins with a series of questions regarding contact, possible exposure to anyone with COVID or flu-like symptoms, travel, anyone being laboratory tested for COVID, and any of the classic COVID-19 symptoms are areas of concern.

“We check everybody’s temperature before they’re allowed in the building,” Little said.

Based on the answers to the questions regarding COVID-19 symptoms, inmates are then evaluated.

“If it’s high fever and one other symptom, they go into a high isolation cell with an N-95 mask on,” Little said. “If it’s high fever and two other symptoms, we contact the emergency department to see what their medical direction is for that person and then they’d be put in the same scenario. Regardless of the screening, when they come in, we immediately put a mask on them and they wear a mask for the duration of their intake process.”

In addition, Little asked jailers months ago to begin wearing masks any time that they’re in contact with the inmates.

“So they’re wearing masks, as well,” Little said.

Little said that efforts are being made and protocol in place to mitigate exposure in the jail.

“Anytime somebody comes in, we put them into a cell that isolates them from other inmates for a period of 14-plus-one days,” Little said. “The only reason we wouldn’t do that is if housing wouldn’t allow us to do it. So far, we’ve gotten pretty lucky that our numbers have been at the right level at the right times. So we’ve been able to keep doing that. We haven’t segued away from that. Where, essentially for the first 15 days you’re here, you’re locked down in a cell. So you’re not having contact with other people in your pod and moving about freely. So you’re maintaining that at least six feet of social distancing from the other inmates.”

Little said there are some inmates that have been housed together because they came in at the same time.

“That’s still not ideal, but it’s still better than it getting throughout your jail,” Little said.

Once inmates are at the jail for the 15-day period, they are moved to another pod with other people who have also been at the jail for more than 15 days.

“And those people, we don’t intermingle,” Little said. “If they leave to go somewhere, or if they have a visit with their attorney, where they’ve been exposed to an unknown environment, then they go back into that 15 days of isolation scenario and start doing that time again, so that we know that we have three cells or three pods within our jail right now where those people have not been exposed to anybody new or those people leave and come back for more than 15 days.”

Also, as a measure to help keep COVID-19 out of the jail, many of the court appearances inmates traditionally make are being done electronically and attorneys are making every attempt to waive inmates’ appearances.

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