County jail waiting on MDOC approval to allow trusties to work again

Published 7:00 am Thursday, May 28, 2020

State inmates at the Pearl River County jail may be allowed out in public spaces to work again. The trusty workers have not been allowed out of the jail to work, no visitors have been allowed and transfers have not been taking place in an effort to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 inside the jail.

The Sheriff’s Department submitted a written safety plan to the Mississippi Department of Corrections on Monday that outlines precautions that would be taken if state inmates went back into the community to work again, said Sheriff David Allison.

MDOC has the authority to determine if the state inmates are allowed to work outside of the jail.

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The county is not reimbursed by the state for housing some of the state inmates, but houses trusties in exchange for their free labor. The county also houses some inmates who are in the long-term alcohol and drug program and is reimbursed by the state for housing those inmates.

The state inmates cook in the jail cafeteria, perform maintenance at county buildings and lawn care at all the county properties, said Allison. Typically the county houses 20 to 30 state inmates who perform that work. Approximately 30 to 40 trusties are needed to maintain county properties, said Allison. Last week the jail was down to 19 state inmates.

Over the last two months trusties who would normally work outside of the jail have been cleaning up jail grounds, painting stripes in the parking lot and performing general maintenance around the building, said Allison.

COVID-19 Measures

The safety plan expands on the precautions already being taken to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility.

Both staff and inmates have their temperature checked before entering the jail and have to go through a questionnaire that determines if they have COVID-19 symptoms or may have been exposed, said RN Mark Stockstill, owner of Health Corr LLC the provider of medical and mental health services at the Pearl River County jail. Prior to the pandemic, the jail already screened people for infectious diseases while they were being booked, said Stockstill. Surfaces were also cleaned with bleach or alcohol prior to the pandemic.

If inmates are permitted to leave the jail for work, every time they returned to the jail they would go through the same screening that anyone entering the jail has to undergo, said Stockstill.

The state inmates are housed in a separate building from the county inmates, said Stockstill, so if one of the inmates is exposed to COVID-19 while working the rest of the jail’s population should still be protected from a widespread outbreak.

New inmates entering the facility are also being housed in a separate zone from inmates who were already being housed in the jail to prevent a facility-wide outbreak.

Inmates who might return to work outside of the facility have been given personal protection equipment, including masks and gloves, and instructed how to use them, said Stockstill.

Corrections officers and medical staff were already wearing facemasks when interacting with inmates, said Stockstill and inmates were already wearing masks when outside of the zone in the jail where they are housed. In break rooms or the control room where typically only one person is present staff might not wear masks.

“Our workers have really taken this very seriously. Nobody wants an outbreak in the jail and they certainly don’t want to take any of this home,” said Stockstill.

The jail has consistently had a stock of N95 masks and has not had to resort to wearing less effective fabric masks, said Stockstill.

No COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in the jail, he said. If an inmate were to have symptoms, like dry cough, or elevated temperature, they would be placed in an isolated cell and tested for COVID-19 in the jail. The local health department would also get involved, said Stockstill. If someone were very sick with a high fever staff would strongly consider sending the person to the hospital to receive a higher level of care, said Stockstill.

The public should know that “anybody that might have a friend or family member who unfortunately is incarcerated, they’re in a safe environment,” said Stockstill.

The jail has performed four antibody tests to determine if someone without COVID-19 symptoms had antibodies. The few inmates who were awaiting COVID-19 test results when they were admitted all had negative results, which jail staff were able to validate with a simple phone call to the state health department, said Stockstill.

Several deputies were exposed to COVID-19, but fortunately did not get the coronavirus, said Allison. One medical worker had potential exposure outside of the jail, but underwent a 14-day quarantine and had two COVID-19 tests that came back negative before returning to work, said Stockstill.

“It’s been a real blessing to work with a group of leadership that really take things seriously, listen to the experts. As a person who’s responsible for jail health, I have met zero resistance in instituting anything, so I’m very, very happy with the way the sheriff and his leadership staff have taken this,” said Stockstill.

Allison said he feels secure that the safety plan would protect inmates.