COVID-19 Outbreak In Twin Falls Jail Brings New Urgency To Overcrowding Issue

Aug 3, 2020

After one inmate at the Twin Falls County jail tested positive for COVID-19 early in July, the jail ordered tests for all inmates and staff. About half of the tests have come back positive, and as of late last week, 125 inmates and seven staff members are confirmed to have COVID-19.

 

The staff members who tested positive, including four deputies, are still showing up to work at the jail because they haven’t shown signs of symptoms, said Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter on Friday. 

“They can continue to work, they just have to wear a mask all the time and gloves,” Carter said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say critical infrastructure workers, including jail staff, may be able to continue to work if they don’t have symptoms. But the South Central Public Health District recommends such people stay home whenever possible. 

The outbreak in the jail, first reported by the Twin Falls Times-News, is compounded by overcrowding. About 80 people sleep on the floor each night because there aren’t enough beds — only 194 for a jail population of roughly 270. 

In two of the jail units, all inmates tested negative for COVID-19, and they are kept separate from the other units. But in the units where positive cases have been identified, there’s no system to quarantine positive individuals from ones who tested negative.

“It’s not like we have an empty room somewhere or an empty cell block where we can take the positive people and sequester them from the not positive people,” Carter said.

The county tried to pass a bond last November for a jail expansion, but the measure failed to gain enough votes. Now, the county is working  to come up with a solution for more beds as quickly as possible, said Twin Falls County Commissioner Jack Johnson.

The police in Twin Falls are refraining from sending individuals to the jail, unless for serious crimes, Carter said. The county prosecutor and jail commander are also reviewing charges against inmates, especially for people with underlying health issues, in case some of them can be released. 

“Everyone in jail is there for a reason,” Carter said. “Now, what we try to determine is how serious that reason is.”

Carter emphasized that nearly 90% of the inmates are being held on felony charges.

“I simply won’t do anything that’s going to put our community at risk,” he said.

Meanwhile, nearly 300 Idaho Department of Corrections inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the department’s tracking. There is no comparable database for coronavirus cases in Idaho’s local jails.

Both the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Idaho Sheriff’s Association told Boise State Public Radio they aren’t aware of any agency tracking COVID-19 cases in jails.

Local health districts may have this information, as they receive positive test results and do contact tracing, but when asked how many cases had been found at the Payette County Detention Facility, Southwest District Health, which covers the county, was unable to provide an answer. It said cases had been identified at Payette County Detention Facility and at the Canyon County Detention Center, but did not have specific numbers.

 Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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