Officials work to reduce jail population in response to coronavirus
“We're trying to keep the numbers down while at the same time, ensure public safety. We are still arresting people. But again, we've asked law enforcement to exercise a little more discretion on who they're going to bring in.," Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said.
There are currently no inmates in the Crow Wing County Jail who are symptomatic of the new coronavirus.
Crow Wing County officials took big strides as the coronavirus spread into Minnesota — with the first case reported on March 6 — and on how to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. The county locked its doors to the public and changed some of the operations of how the county jail off Laurel Street in Brainerd operates.
The biggest changes are how people are taken into custody, how they are housed in the jail and how they are released. In fact, some inmates were released from the Brainerd jail as a result of attempting to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.
According to the American Journal of Public Health in 2009, “The pathway for transmission of pandemic influenza between jails and the community is a two-way street. Jails process millions of bookings per year. Infected individuals coming from the community may be housed with healthy inmates and will come into contact with correctional officers, which can spread infection throughout a facility. On release from jail, infected inmates can also spread infection into the community where they reside.”
Community corrections staff, who are required to take their temperature when they arrive at work to make sure they do not have a fever, have closely monitored the inmates’ health since the outbreak. As of Monday, April 6, the jail had no case of inmates with COVID-19 symptoms. The jail population currently is about 100 inmates, which is relatively lower than usual, Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard said.
The sheriff’s office, which oversees the jail, has a mission to lower the jail population to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“What we're looking at is what we can do to keep everyone healthy, which is the same drastic steps being taken across the nation, by businesses, by how we are going to the store — everything we do is being impacted,” Goddard said. “Our goal is to keep our jail population at a minimum to not only reduce the chance of inmates getting it or inmates being brought in that might have it, but to keep our staff healthy. We know there are going to be people that have to go to jail.”
Goddard said people who commit serious crimes, such as domestic violence and higher drug crimes — will be arrested and will go to jail. He doesn’t want people to think they can commit a crime and get away with it.
Keeping the jail population low begins on the streets. Law enforcement officers throughout the county are still taking reports on a daily basis. The 911 dispatchers are gathering more information from complainants to make sure no one in the household is feeling symptoms of COVID-19 to pass on to the officers.
“We are taking preventive measures,” Goddard said. “We're not going into houses unless we have to. We do have a protocol in place for when and how we wear masks. We’re following the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. We are not wearing masks or gloves throughout the day. We're taking preventative measures, and it is basically on a case by case basis.”
If the person or household doesn't show symptoms, the deputy will engage and arrest as they typically do. If symptoms are present they will wear the appropriate protection gear. And once the person gets to the jail they have to go through another round of screenings before they enter the housing unit.
“We've been fortunate as we haven’t had any cases,” Goddard said. “We had one case come in, within the last week, of an individual that we took precautions on as we thought the person may have had it, but it was later determined that the person did not have it, which is good.”
Goddard met with all the area police chiefs on how to handle arrests during the pandemic. Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said officers are practicing social distancing.
“We're trying to practice the best social distancing we can given the nature of our work,” McQuiston said. “We're really trying to do a lot of things by phone, by email, or other ways of communication if there's opportunities where we can cut back on our face to face contact to protect both our staff and the public to help cut down or mitigate the spreading of the virus.”
McQuiston said they are trying to conserve the personal protective equipment they have for now, but that could change any day as ”things are changing rapidly with” the spread of the coronavirus.
“Sometimes we're asking people to step outside of their house when on a call to help us to maintain that social distance,” McQuiston said. “This will stop us from carrying something to them or stop us from picking up something from them. So when it's appropriate, we are asking people to step outside and talk to us.”
There are times when officers have to go inside the residence, such as on a violent crime, to collect evidence and to observe the situation.
“We really don’t have a choice on these cases,” McQuiston said. “We still have to investigate these cases like we normally would.
“We've asked officers to use their own judgment and make some observations of how the people look and sound and appear as they get on the scene, and then decide if they do need to take extra precaution,” he said.
Officers will arrest violent offenders and those who commit a crime against a person, even during the pandemic.
Once officers bring the offenders to jail, there is another screening done to make sure the person does not have any symptoms of the coronavirus. The jail doesn’t want any new inmates coming in mixing with the inmates already in jail who have been screened and deemed healthy.
Crow Wing County Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson said when the county began its emergency planning to prepare for COVID-19, they separated their housing units. Jail staff took one of its empty housing units and moved the female inmates into the new sanitized unit. Staff then sanitized the former female housing unit and used this unit and another unit titled Bravo for the new inmates — to isolate them on one side of the building. All new inmates coming into the jail are housed in one of the two units and are single bunked. Once a new inmate is in the isolated unit for 14 days and shows no symptoms of the virus, they may be moved into one of the other units.
The county locked its doors to the public and is not allowing anyone into the lobby at the jail. Before COVID-19, jail visitations were done through a video visitation at the jail. However, now if people want to visit an inmate, they still have the video visitation option — they now just have to do it remotely on their own computer.
Fosteson said inmates also have mobile devices for texting their family and friends outside of the jail walls. The jail is not currently in lockdown and the inmates are free to come out during the day, however, it is done in smaller groups to keep the social distancing guidelines.
“We just don't want to isolate and cut people off totally,” Fosteson said. “We've done some research on giving them free opportunities, you know, providing phone cards to the inmates that maybe don't have money, so they can still keep in contact with family.”
To help reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the jail also ended its programming to inmates and is not allowing those program volunteers to come into the jail. Attorneys also are not allowed in the jail and arrangements and other court hearings in the county are being done through interactive TV.
One way the inmates who have a nonviolent criminal history have been dealing with the pandemic is working with their attorneys to be released from jail. Fosteson said this is out of the jail’s hands. The decision on if an inmate would be released is between the prosecution and defense attorneys and for the judge to decide.
The public defender’s office in Brainerd filed motions in Crow Wing County District Court asking for the release of several nonviolent offenders to help mitigate the threat posed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our main priority was our client’s health and safety which is directly related to the health and safety of everyone else in the community,” Carly Vosacek with the public defender’s office in Brainerd stated in an email. “Jails aren’t meant to house people long term, there is a high turnover rate. Reducing populations protects the clients, jail staff and the community. Our priority was to reduce jail population while balancing public safety. I believe that has been done in Crow Wing, Cass and Aitkin Counties."
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said he worked with the public defender’s office in creating a list of people who were requesting to get out of jail early because of the pandemic situation.
“We agreed on a very small number,” Ryan said of inmates being released. “The ones we agreed on were low level offenses who were not a public safety concern.”
When the response to COVID-19 began, the Crow Wing County Attorney’s Office received 27 original motions relating to releasing inmates. Of the 27 cases, the county opposed 17 cases and agreed to release one inmate through Sentence to Service; one on their own recognizance, pending further court proceedings; one discharged from probation and released to another county for warrants; two were released to treatment; and five city cases which the county did not know the outcome.
During a March 31 interview, Ryan said he believed there were three more cases brought to his attention by the public defender’s office and in each of those cases the person was released with their confinement time considered satisfied. At least two inmate cases awaited sentencing and have since had their sentences executed. At this time also there were no more motions pending before the court in Crow Wing County to Ryan’s knowledge.
Vosacek stated in an April 1 email that she expects more motions to be filed in the coming days and weeks, as individual attorneys determine if asking the court to reconsider a case is appropriate.
The state filed a motion March 25 to deny 15 defendants the right to be released from jail. The other two defendants were denied in separate orders. One of the defendants who was denied was a 31-year-old St. Cloud man who faces two felony first-degree drug charges dealing with selling and possessing cocaine or methamphetamines.
“We're trying to keep the numbers down while at the same time, ensure public safety,” Ryan said. “We are still arresting people. But again, we've asked law enforcement to exercise a little more discretion on who they're going to bring in. For instance, if they stopped someone who is driving drunk, obviously they're getting arrested and coming into jail. We're not going to let them drive away. If it's an assault, a sexual assault or a serious felony type people crimes, they're still getting arrested and brought into jail. We're just exercising discretion on saying that some of the lower level drug possession cases where we might have arrested them, but they would have gotten released on their own recognizance anyway within 48 hours. So now instead of arresting them, we're just long forming them (writing up charges) and submitting them into court. So they're still being prosecuted. They just aren't being introduced into the jail at this time.”
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.