The Jackson County Jail in Scottsboro, Alabama, hasn't had a confirmed case of COVID-19 thus far during the pandemic, and officials are working to keep it that way by putting any new inmates into a 14-day quarantine where they aren't even allowed to take showers.
"We've been trying to use common sense during this emergency," Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen said Wednesday. "We're still being very careful and we're sending most people home on an OR [own recognizance] bond or reduced bonds, as we can."
Harnen said two pods at the 209-bed county jail have been designated as quarantine pods for new male arrestees, and one as a quarantine pod for females. A separate isolation ward with a handful of cells is available for overflow quarantine of new arrestees, if needed, or any inmates who actually are confirmed with the virus.
So far that number is zero, but the stricter quarantine guidelines triggered some concerns among inmates' family members.
"We had some family people calling some of the media in Huntsville about their loved ones not getting to take a shower," Chief Corrections Deputy Hal Nash said Wednesday. He said all precautions, including denying access to communal showers, aim to keep everyone inside the jail healthy and it starts with measures taken before a new arrestee even arrives.
A coronavirus questionnaire form was issued by Sheriff Chuck Phillips to all police departments in the county for officers to use with anyone they've taken into custody, Nash said.
"We know at the time they're brought here if we're going to bring them into the building," Nash said. "We will send one of our corrections deputies out into the sally port to assess the evaluation sheet and take the arrestee's temperature."
Officials take new arrestees' temperature every four hours while they're under quarantine.
After a new arrestee is booked — and if their temperature is OK and their COVID-19 questionnaire doesn't trigger any alarms — they go into an immediate 14-day quarantine before they're allowed into the jail's general population, Nash said.
Although new arrestees can't shower during quarantine, Nash said, they do have access to a sink to wash up.
"My great fear is that [COVID-19] gets inside the jail, and if it gets in here, it's from outside. That's where we're most cautious," he said. "We're going to err on the side of caution. We've got to. I just can't let it get into this building."
Staff inside the jail wear masks and other protective gear, if needed, he said, and if anyone leaves the jail property for more than two hours, they must have their temperature checked before they can re-enter. A cleanup crew sanitizes frequently touched surfaces and common areas daily, he said.
No inmates are allowed outside the jail with the exception of the one inmate who mows the grass on the jail property, but he doesn't go off the property, Nash said.
For some court hearings, the jail uses video technology to allow inmates, judges and lawyers to discuss cases and conduct court business, he said. If an inmate is in quarantine, an iPad is used for the video hearing inside the quarantine pod.
Harnen and Nash credited early COVID-19-related directives from state court officials with reducing jail populations by creating guidelines for releases of nonviolent offenders. The guidelines also helped create space in Jackson's jail for quarantining inmates.
Jackson County officials had a coronavirus scare in late March when a Tennessee murder suspect turned himself in to Scottsboro police. The suspect had contact with someone confirmed with the coronavirus and that contact was confirmed by law enforcement, resulting in seven Jackson County officers self-isolating at home for two weeks. The suspect turned out being negative for the virus, and no officers showed any signs of infection.
"The stress level is up for all of us here," Nash said of the jail's inmates and staff.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.