Visitation suspended and cleaning increased to keep COVID-19 out of local jails

Published 7:00 am Thursday, April 9, 2020

Local law enforcement departments are taking steps to keep COVID-19 out of their jails, such as suspending visitation.

Visitors have not been allowed at the Lenoir Rowell Criminal Justice Center, located in Millard, since mid-March. After the Mississippi Department of Corrections suspended visitation to state inmates, the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department decided to follow suit and suspended visitation to county inmates as well.

Inmates are still able to contact loved ones through collect phone calls or by mail, said Pearl River County Sheriff David Allison.

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Cleaning in the jail has increased, with doorknobs being wiped down every 30 minutes and frequent hand washing heavily encouraged, said Allison.

The Picayune Police Department has also suspended inmate visitation for several weeks, said Assistant Police Chief Dustin Moeller. While visitors and inmates do not come in physical contact with one another at the police department, the department closed its building to the public.

Members of the public can call the police department to speak with an officer instead of entering the building. When possible, officers are even taking reports over the phone, said Moeller.

“We normally would not take a report over the phone. That’s something that we just don’t do, but we had to just start doing a little bit more of that with all of this going on. We’re doing this on a case-by-case basis,” said Moeller.

Emergencies are all still being handled in person. When interacting with the public, officers wear face masks. To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to each other during shift change, officers meet outdoors instead of in the squad room, Moeller said.

The police department is trying to keep the jail’s population low to prevent a COVID-19 case within the facility. When possible, people are issued citations or post arrest citations and a court date instead of being brought to jail, said Moeller.

“We don’t want the jail full right now. Obviously, if someone has to come to jail, we are going to bring them to jail,” Moeller said.

When the Sheriff’s Department makes an arrest, the suspect is asked a long list of questions before being placed in the county jail. The questions include, but are not limited to, whether the person has traveled to areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days, like Orleans Parish, if they’ve been in close proximity to someone awaiting a COVID-19 test result, if they are awaiting a result themselves or if they are experiencing symptoms like diarrhea or lost sense of smell.

However, people who answer “yes” to any of the questions or appear to have symptoms are still booked into the jail. The jail has two dormitories so suspects who are exhibiting symptoms or answer “yes” to the questions are placed in the second dormitory separate from the rest of the jail’s general population, said Allison. New people in the jail are kept out of the general population for at least 14 days, he said.

The temperature of each suspect is taken before they enter the jail and deputies take notice of whether they are coughing or having difficulty breathing, said Allison.

The department is also trying to prevent inmates from coming into the county jail from other facilities, like a state penitentiary.

Some inmates being held in other facilities have holds on them due to an offense logged with the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department. Typically a hold would mean that an inmate who has served their time at one facility is eventually transferred to the county jail to face county charges. Instead, the Sheriff’s Department is evaluating those cases on an individual basis to determine if the person should be brought to the county jail. When that person is not brought to the county jail, the previous correctional facility keeps that person for the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department. The practice might delay setting a court date for those suspects, Allison said, but he thinks the point is moot.

“Even if we went and got them, we couldn’t set a court date. Whether we go get them or don’t go get them, they won’t have a court date right now,” he said.

According to Allison and Moeller, both departments have adequate personal protection equipment to keep jail personnel and officers safe.

Allison said the only item the Sheriff’s Department needs is more thermometers and it is in the process of acquiring safety glasses. The police department has the PPE it needs for the moment, and is in the process of trying to acquire more, said Moeller.

“We’re doing what we can to keep everybody safe, to keep everything running smoothly,” said Moeller. “At the same time, we ask that the public would do the same thing. We ask that the public would observe the curfew set by the city. We ask that the public would observe social distancing.”