Mobile County Metro Jail has significantly enhanced its initial medical screenings, released certain non-violent prisoners and created designated quarantine zones as part of its broader efforts to combat the potential spread of COVID-19 within its walls.
Warden Trey Oliver said overcrowding in the jail has made it difficult for inmates and corrections officers to adhere to the recommended six feet of separation and other “social distancing” measures encouraged by the Alabama Department of Public Health as the spread of COVID-19 continues throughout the state.
In response, the jail is working harder to identify potentially ill inmates earlier and isolate them.
“We have always conducted extensive medical screenings for incoming arrestees we think are going to be in our custody for a while. That’s because we’re always looking to see whether they need to be in suicide prevention or if they have some kind of illness,” Oliver said. “Now, we’re sending a registered nurse outside to the [intake area] to check for a fever, dry cough and to ask preliminary questions about symptoms that would be consistent with someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.”
Within the jail, corrections officers have also established tiered quarantine zones: Level 1 for those who are suspected of being exposed to COVID-19, and Level II for those already showing symptoms. As of Monday, March 23, Oliver said there were no inmates quarantined in those areas.
The jail has also moved to establish what Oliver called “hurricane footing,” which is when select inmates are released ahead of a hurricane to reduce Metro’s population. In response to COVID-19, jailers have worked with local courts to release inmates with a greater risk of complications from COVID-19 like the elderly and immunocompromised, provided they don’t pose a threat to the public on the outside.
Last week, Presiding Judge Holmes Whiddon signed an order allowing Mobile Municipal Court inmates in Metro sign their own bond and leave custody while their case is pending if they are over the age of 60 and arrested for public intoxication, loitering, disorderly conduct or criminal trespassing.
Those offenses, which are typical of those with mental health issues and the homeless, are all considered non-violent misdemeanors. Oliver said no one in custody for a violent offense is eligible for release regardless of their age or risk of greater complications from COVID-19. As it stands now, Whiddon’s order is effective from March 16 until at least April 20, though it could possibly be extended.
According to Oliver, there are some qualifying inmates in jail for low-level state offenses who could be released as well, but they are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If one of those inmates is identified as a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, the jail notifies their defense attorney, who can then file a motion seeking a pretrial release based on the circumstances.
“I’m sure they’d consider our recommendation, but that has to be a judicial decision in each of those cases,” Oliver said. “That way the judge can issue an order to release them ahead or just lower their bond. There’s no sense in them being penalized because they can’t afford a bond.”
Local jails like Metro are also having to adapt to changes in the way the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is responding to COVID-19 in its prisons.
Last Friday, ADOC issued a 30-day moratorium on all new transfers of prisoners from county jails throughout the state. The day before, ADOC announced one of its corrections officers had tested positive for COVID-19, but declined to identify the employee or the facility where they were employed.
According to a release from ADOC, state prisons will continue to receive inmates with severe medical or mental health conditions, but will not accept anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 or anyone who has tested positive for the disease already. The ban is likely based on concerns over the conditions in most state prisons, which federal officials declared unconstitutionally overcrowded and dangerous in 2019.
In Mobile, Oliver said the reduction of outgoing state inmates puts even more pressure on Metro.
“We routinely make several trips a week to deliver inmates to state prisons, so that’s one of our bigger concerns,” he said. “But that’s also why we were proactive on the front end to reduce the population as much as possible to allow some breathing room with these quarantine areas because space is so tight.”
So far, Olive said a little less than two dozen inmates have been allowed to bond out over concerns from COVID-19, most of awaiting dates in Mobile Municipal Court. He did say throughout the jail there are approximately 300 total inmates who could be at greater risk due to their age or health condition.
The jail, which was originally built for a maximum of 1,100 inmates, has had some additions over the years, but still struggles with overcrowding. There were more than 1,600 inmates housed there this time a month ago, though Oliver told Lagniappe that number has currently dropped to about 1,400 at last count.
Still, there are multiple people sharing cells throughout areas of the jail, so the employees are trying to be mindful of anyone who becomes sick so COVID-19 or any infectious illness doesn’t spread. According to Oliver, Metro does have access to COVID-19 testing kits through ADPH, but he told Lagniappe there hasn’t been an inmate with symptoms that have justified using one of the tests so far.
Oliver said jail staff are continuing to work closely with the remaining inmates at Metro Jail to educate them about the dangers of COVID-19 as well as the hygiene and distancing measures that can help stop its spread.
The Mobile County Commissions has also provided additional funding so court hearing can be conducted remotely. Hearings for the Mobile County Circuit Court are currently being held in Metro’s Chapel area.
“On any given day, our Corrections Officers will sometimes transport 80 to 140 inmates to court for their hearings,” Sheriff Sam Cochran said. “The video hearings will reduce the transportation, reduce the amount of contraband and contact with others outside the jail, and will allow us to place some of those Corrections Officers who were tied up in transportation in other well needed areas of our jail.”
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