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Jackson County Jail inmates ask for release due to COVID-19 fears

A group of Jackson County Jail inmates have asked to be released on house arrest for fear of contracting COVID-19, but jail administrators say they’ve taken extensive steps to protect those in custody.

Citing a variety of underlying conditions between them that include asthma, cancer, sleep apnea, and a history of recurrent lung infections, eight female inmates — four of whom are charged with violent crimes and one found guilty except for insanity on an assault charge — submitted a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and media outlets earlier this week saying they’re terrified of contracting COVID-19.

“Everyone here in the women’s underground cell block is horrified, everyone is terrified,” said the three-page letter. Among the inmates who signed the letter are murder suspect Aisling Tucker Moore-Reed, attempted murder suspect Kyla Duncan, and methamphetamine trafficking suspect Reynalda Larios-Cortes. “This is a desecration of the presumption of innocence — forcing people to dwell in the certainty of infection, in the possibility of death, when viable alternatives exist.”

The viable alternative they seek is home detention with ankle monitoring bracelets and GPS tracking.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said jail administrators have worked with Jackson County Public Health and the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association since March to develop protocols to protect jail staff and inmates, and have been working with other criminal justice agencies to reduce the inmate population.

“So far we’ve had zero cases in our jail, and it’s been a community effort,” Sickler said.

Jackson County Jail commander Lt. Josh Aldrich said no county jail in Oregon has reported a COVID-19 case, according to an Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association report issued earlier this week.

Sickler said he and Aldrich have been videoconferencing weekly with jail administrators across the state since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, and have developed a series of protocols developed with input from state and local health officials.

The inmates claim that exposure to the virus is “not a question of if, it is a matter of when,” arguing that it would take only one person to bring the virus into the closed environment of the jail.

Inmates derided the jail’s screening process as “nothing more than a questionnaire and the taking of a person’s temperature.”

Sickler said the jail’s quarantine protocol, developed with input from Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames and guidance from the Oregon Health Authority, keeps newly booked inmates in separate housing areas from longer term inmates.

“We’re not commingling people who just come into the jail with people who’ve been there a long time,” Sickler said. “If they’re going to be there longer than 14 days, they’re observed for that 14 days before they go into the next cell.”

A person exposed to COVID-19 typically begins showing symptoms such as a cough or fever within five or six days of exposure, according to the World Health Organization, but the virus incubation period can be as short as 1 day or as long as 14 days, and some people don’t exhibit any symptoms but are still capable of spreading the virus.

The jail keeps inmates grouped together with others booked at the same time, Aldrich said in an email.

If an inmate starts showing symptoms, the jail has two isolation units with negative air flow to avoid cross contamination.

The inmates criticized the isolation cell as “austere” and claimed they lack the resources a sick person at home has to care for themselves.

“We can’t buy cough drops or cough syrup. We can’t buy soup. We can’t buy fresh fruit or vegetables,” the letter stated. “We will likely receive no medical care at all except to be isolated in a cell even more austere and given ibuprofen for our suffering, until our situation is so severe, so extreme, we might be transported to the hospital in shackles.”

Sickler said any inmate who isn’t feeling well can flag down a corrections deputy, and the deputy will send a message known as a “kite” asking medical staff to check on the inmate. Under Oregon law, corrections deputies must check on inmates at least once an hour. Sickler said medical staff and corrections deputies regularly check inmates’ temperatures and watch for symptoms.

Sickler said the jail has transported inmates to the hospital with COVID-19-like symptoms, but the conditions have turned out to be other illnesses.

Since the middle of March, the jail has reduced its population by 100 inmates. Sickler said that as of Wednesday, the jail was “hovering right around” 215 inmates, below its cap of 315 inmates.

Sickler said the gradual process of releasing inmates applies lessons he and his staff learned the last time the inmate population needed to be reduced — in November 2015 when former sheriff Corey Falls closed the jail basement out of staffing concerns and abruptly reduced the jail population by 62 beds. Sickler reopened the basement in April 2017.

“We know what happens when you let all the people out of your jail,” Sickler said. “Things go really bad outside in the community.”

Jail administrators are working with local judges, Jackson County Community Justice parole and probation officers and the Jackson County District Attorney’s office to expedite some inmates’ sentencing hearings or have inmates with stable homes released on their own recognizance while they await court hearings.

Sickler said the jail is also working with police chiefs to temporarily reduce the number of jail bookings. The governor’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” mandate has helped local police reduce the number of certain calls for service that typically lead to arrests, such as fewer burglaries, because more people are at home, and fewer alcohol-related arrests because bars are closed.

“That’s not going to last forever,” Sickler said, adding that some criminals are getting more brazen. “You will always have individuals who want to take advantage of the situation.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

FILE PHOTO: Jackson County Jail. A group of jail inmates have recently asked for release due to worries over COVID-19.{ }