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As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises across the country, local courts and some law enforcement agencies are taking precautions to prevent further spread within jails, and jail officials insist they have the ability to contain an outbreak.
Jails are especially vulnerable to an outbreak because of how quickly the virus spreads in closed spaces, and while visitations have been suspended, people — both staff and inmates — regularly cycle in and out. And the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is calling for stronger measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in jails.
Some law enforcement agencies are reminding officers to issue citations to people when possible, meaning they must appear in court or pay a fine, instead of arresting them.
That's "in an effort to limit social density of incarcerated individuals within the Hamilton County Jail," Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said in an email.
But not all agencies appear to be on the same page.
East Ridge police, for example, arrested a person who was showing COVID-19 symptoms for a non-violent offense Friday night. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office had to transport the person to a hospital after releasing them on a cashless bond. The sheriff's office did not release the person's charges or what, if anything, was done to prevent contact with others.
East Ridge Police Department Chief Stan Allen said his officers have been directed to use caution when dealing with people showing indications of being sick.
But issues with outstanding warrants are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Chattanooga police, however, are following regular protocols for arresting individuals, as it is up to jail staff to screen the offenders, Myzal said.
And, as of this week, Chattanooga police and other agencies were still arresting those who are in violation of probation, according to jail booking reports. Though, "If the court system at some point determines that is to change, [Chattanooga police] will follow their orders," Myzal said.
As of this week, there hasn't been a directive from the courts on the matter, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz said. But judges are addressing the issue on an individual basis.
Greenholtz, for example, is in favor of increased probationary supervision rather than an arrest if the offender didn't commit a new crime.
That's because, "if you take someone into custody where you could have taken another action that would result in appropriate resolution of the case, you risk introducing into the facility someone with the COVID-19 virus. You also risk someone who was otherwise not infected, you introduce them to the possibility of infection if it's already in the detention facilities."
Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the state's judicial branch, ordering courts across the state to suspend most in-person proceedings until March 31 but to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here in Hamilton County, some proceedings will be postponed, others will take place remotely and only in limited situations will hearings be held in person. Grand jury proceedings also have been suspended until April 1.
The court should soon have the ability to hold pre-scheduled video conference hearings, according to an order filed Wednesday. That's something that some officials hope can become a permanent option.
It would save taxpayers money not having to transport inmates, Hamilton County Chief Deputy Austin Garrett has said.
And it would "keep people from waiting in the courtroom all morning," Greenholtz said. "We could have testimony from an officer who is maybe in the field so I don't have to detain an officer for hours every morning and take away from his or her duties."
For now, though, if an in-person hearing is necessary, only essential people will be allowed in the courtroom and they will all be screened before entering the courthouse.
Each courtroom and inmate holding area will be sanitized at regular intervals, and judges will enforce social distancing in the courtrooms.
As far as individual cases, judges have taken a look at people who are being held pre-trial, people who have been sentenced already but whose sentence is close to expiration and, on an individual basis, they have modified bail amounts or suspended balances of sentences, Greenholtz said.
"The jail population is a vulnerable population where people are being held simply because they're not able to make a high bail amount," he said. "In no case have we taken action where the safety of the community may be at risk. In every case, we have coordinated with the District Attorney's Office, and if the person is represented by counsel, we've worked in conjunction with them."
While the court doesn't have quick access to inmate demographic information, Greenholtz said he's heard "scores" of bail motions this week filed by attorneys representing older and otherwise at-risk defendants. In almost every case, he said, the court has approved those bail agreements.
But for those who remain behind bars, jail officials say they have a plan to dampen an outbreak should an inmate test positive for COVID-19.
"This plan was developed after consulting with Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and Erlanger health personnel and [does] not require a facility with recycled air," sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea said in an email. "We want to reassure the community and those who have loved ones in the Hamilton County Jail we do have the ability to humanely quarantine inmates should the need arise to isolate infected inmates from the general population."
At Silverdale Detention Center, however, there would be a different plan. CoreCivic, the private prison operator that manages the detention center, has said its facilities have a "comprehensive plan in place to address coronavirus," including separating "the sick from the well." How that would be done or how it was devised, however, is unclear.
The facility recently came under scrutiny after some local attorneys sounded the alarm over a lack of precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a day, the sheriff's office said it had addressed the issues.
Ultimately, the forced changes in operation could be an opportunity for improvement, Greenholtz noted.
With Silverdale, for example, it has pushed officials to implement a temporary system for attorneys to communicate with their clients remotely, something for which they plan to find a more permanent solution.
"The situation has presented an opportunity to really re-examine what we do and why we do it and to make positive changes," Greenholtz said. "We have an opportunity to make some profound changes for the good of our community, and we're taking advantage of that while we can."
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office did not respond to questions about whether it now has any inmates in isolation or being tested for coronavirus exposure.
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