Dozens of Hamilton County inmates missed court this week as preventive quarantines climb due to the ongoing jails merger.
Only about 24 of the 90 inmates scheduled for hearings in criminal court on Monday were in attendance as 130 inmates sat in quarantine at the Silverdale Detention Center, raising concerns about due process.
"It's my understanding that there were a large number of people from the county jail, who were not quarantined, who had not been exposed to COVID, who were transferred on either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning to Silverdale. And then they were put in quarantine at Silverdale, but they were denied access to come back to the Sessions Court," defense attorney Hank Hill said Wednesday.
"And that is fundamentally incompetent and irresponsible. It's treating humans like cattle at a cattle sale and ignores without question the due process clause, that these people are entitled to their day in court."
According to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, there were 136 total inmates in quarantine as the downtown jail is being vacated. Private prison company CoreCivic is ending its 30-year relationship with the county and the sheriff's office is taking over operations at Silverdale, beginning this week.
With just four total inmates and four total staff actively sick with COVID-19, the sheriff's office noted that the 130 inmates in quarantine at the Silverdale facility as of Tuesday have been recently transferred from other facilities, including the downtown facility, and are being quarantined before entering the general population.
A spokesperson for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office commented on the quarantine procedures.
"We are aware of CoreCivic's policy that all incoming inmates transferring from other facilities must quarantine for 14 days before they join the general inmate population," Public Information Officer Rachel Frizzell wrote Wednesday, the day CoreCivic was set to vacate Silverdale and turn all operations over to the county.
"It is our understanding that a representative from CoreCivic communicated with a representative from Hamilton County Courts about inmates in quarantine not being able to physically appear in court. We have no further knowledge of the decisions made after this conversation since these inmates were in CoreCivic's care at that time," she continued. "I understand this can be a little tricky since this happened so close to the transition, but it is important to note that in this occurrence the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Corrections Division was not involved or aware until your inquiry."
A representative of CoreCivic said the procedure was no different than it has been throughout the pandemic.
"Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, including the Silverdale Detention Center, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners. Silverdale Detention Center has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic and we're continuing to work closely with our government partners to enhance procedures as needed," Public Affairs Manager Ryan Gustin said Wednesday.
"The health and safety of the individuals entrusted to our care and our staff is the top priority for CoreCivic," Gustin said. "This commitment is shared by our government partners and we have worked closely together with them to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities."
Asked about the company's considerations of due process for inmates during this time of high quarantines, Gustin said inmates are offered alternative hearings.
"We have been in regular communication with personnel at the Hamilton County Court System and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office regarding court hearings for those impacted by COVID-19. For the safety of all involved, inmates are not able to participate in in-person court proceedings if they are positive for COVID-19 or under a quarantine status," he wrote. "In an effort to accommodate those impacted by this safety measure, CoreCivic facility leadership developed an alternative process, which would use video and telephone conferencing, personal protective equipment, and additional cleaning and disinfecting procedures, to allow for inmates to participate in their court hearings. These alternative procedures are in place at the facility and the processes have been shared with all involved."
CoreCivic could not confirm that all 66 of the absent inmates in question had been offered or received alternative hearings.
Hill said the county should have left inmates at the jail until their court date passed Monday, rather than moving them further from the court and into quarantine late last week.
"The real point of this is, those people were at the county jail, literally 150 feet from the courtroom, and they drove them, what, 18-20 miles out to Silverdale," he said. "And then, although they know nobody had been exposed to COVID-19 in that group, they quarantined them there."
"And the sheriff is patting himself on the back so strong, about how well the transition was going. No, it's not, it's not going well if you take people out of the jail, take over Silverdale, and you don't bring them back to court."
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