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Southeastern Iowa jails set limits to curb virus spread

Months since the start of the pandemic, county jails in southeastern Iowa are continuing to take precautions, though sheriffs say their inmate counts are gradually returning to normal.

Beginning in March, county jails across the state took steps to limit the number of inmates in close quarters. That included for certain counties delaying imprisonment for those charged with less than a year of jail time, quarantining new arrivals and screening inmates and staffers before entering the jails.

On Tuesday, the Washington County Jail held 22 inmates and no out-of-county inmates, down from the county’s usual 68 inmates pre-pandemic. In Henry County, the jail – a 108-bed facility that opened in November – on Monday held 41 people. Jefferson County jail, on Tuesday, held 13 inmates – 11 male and two female – compared to a pre-pandemic average of 24-25.

Washington County

The Washington County jail, under normal circumstances, holds out-of-county inmates that are transfers from other county jails, such as Polk. Pre-pandemic, the county held an average of 30 out-of-county inmates, Sheriff Jared Schneider said. In the last few months, the jail hasn’t held any, which is largely due to other counties limiting capacity, too. Between July 1, 2019, and March 31 of this year, the revenue for the Washington County jail facility from out-of-county inmates was $537,000.

For a few months, Schneider said, the jail didn’t allow those with less than a year sentence to come into the jail. In the past month, however, he said, the jail has begun to serve that backlog gradually so as to prevent six or seven people from entering into the jail at once.

Henry County

Not all counties, however, have limited out-of-county inmates.

Henry County opened a new 108-bed jail in November, an upgrade from the previous 1963 facility, which only held eight beds. Since opening, the jail now has the capacity to hold inmates from other counties.

In mid-July, the facility held 12 inmates from out of county.

But the jail is not holding those charged with a jail stay of less than a year, said Sheriff Rich McNamee. Jail staffers screen every inmate and officer for COVID-19 symptoms that come through the jail, he said. The jail has cells that hold inmates for two weeks upon entering the jail – during the time COVID-19 is contagious.

The county jail isn’t allowing visitors – normally the jail allows visitors to enter the jail and visit via a closed circuit video kiosk. Now, jail administrators in Henry County are limiting visitors to texts on an iPad and phone calls.

But, McaNamee said, COVID precautions start before anyone sets foot in the jails.

“It starts with our dispatchers screening the person on the phone. If you call 9-1-1 right now, say ‘I’m having chest pain.’ Our dispatchers are asking questions about COVID,” he said.

Jefferson County

In the Jefferson County jail, one inmate has tested positive, said Sheriff Greggory Morton. He said the department put the inmate into a separate positive pressure cell and tested those that came into contact with the person. That inmate is no longer at the jail and no staff members have tested positive for the virus, he said.

The jail is a 32-bed facility. During early months of the pandemic, Morton said, the jail reduced its inmate numbers but is creeping back to normal five months into the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, he said the jail held 13 inmates – 11 male and 2 female. The average census count pre-pandemic, he said, was usually 24-25.

In the early months of the pandemic, Morton said, the Jefferson County sheriff’s office had asked magistrates to cite and release those on minor misdemeanor charges in order to cut down on the number of inmates in the jail.

The Jefferson County jail began doing visitations about two weeks ago – at the same time the law enforcement center opened, Morton said. But a thick panel of glass separates an inmate from a visitor.