Jail staff, inmates test negative for COVID-19

Jail staff, inmates test negative for COVID-19

From the Las Vegas Optic

No new coronavirus cases were detected during testing of all inmates and staff at the San Miguel County Detention Center, according to Warden Matt Elwell.

The testing was prompted after one inmate tested positive May 5 during routine testing. New Mexico Department of Health officials tested staff and other inmates May 6, and by Sunday afternoon, all test results had returned with no sign of further infection.

“We put every precaution we thought of in place, and we still had a positive test,” Elwell said. “But it didn’t spread, so that’s the good thing.”

Following the positive test, the jail instituted a partial lockdown. Twenty-two staff members — including Elwell — volunteered to live at the jail, and staff members worked 12-hour shifts to keep the facility operating. The jail returned to regular staffing shifts at 6 a.m. Monday.

“Moving forward, we’ll continue our sanitation protocols, our temperature protocols (and) our booking protocols because it looks like the measures we’ve had in place have worked,” Elwell said. “That’s evident in the testing, so we want to continue that good work and increase it.”

Anyone booked into SMCDC will now be tested for COVID-19 as part of the booking process, according to Elwell. Previously, incoming inmates had their temperatures taken and were monitored for symptoms of the coronavirus.

“We’ll still have an observation period of 14 days, so even if they come back negative, they’ll still be monitored for that 14-day period before they’re moved into general population,” Elwell said.

The male inmate who tested positive for the coronavirus has been incarcerated at the facility for more than 30 days and is currently quarantined. It is unknown how he may have contracted the virus, but Elwell will meet with state health officials this week to begin contact tracing.

Jail officials have not notified the man’s family because he did not sign a release allowing them to divulge personal medical information, Elwell said. However, the man has been given access to a phone and could contact family or friends.

According to Elwell, jail staff and other inmates have had contact with the infected inmate.

“He was in general population, and we rotate out staff,” Elwell said. “I can honestly say that 80 to 90 percent of staff members had contact with him, along with the inmates in his living area.”

Elwell said he wants family members of those still being held at the jail to know he and his staff are taking precautions to protect inmates, including providing them with surgical-style masks that are replaced regularly.

An outbreak of coronavirus in the state’s jails and prisons has been a concern for civil rights advocates and defense attorneys since early March.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur told the Optic the best way to prevent an outbreak inside any jail is to reduce the number of incarcerated people. Baur said he would like to see jails and prisons release inmates with serious medical conditions and those who are charged with non-violent crimes as a way to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus throughout the community.

“Especially in a county jail, the people that are in there are members of the community. They were in the community before they got arrested, and they will be returning to the community,” he said. “It’s really our responsibility to protect their health, and in doing so, we protect our own health.”

New Mexico reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 11, and since then, area law enforcement, prosecutors and courts have adopted new policies to reduce arrests and lower the number of inmates at SMCDC.

As previously reported by the Optic, the efforts have resulted in substantially fewer bookings into SMCDC. As of Monday, 47 inmates were being housed at the jail — 45 men and two women. The jail’s capacity is 164 inmates.

But even with a reduced inmate population, infectious diseases like the coronavirus can still spread easily in jails because inmates live in close quarters, which makes it difficult to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Baur said. Jail staff also have several interactions with inmates throughout the day, and return home at the end of their shifts.

“That’s why you have to be ready for it and have procedures in place, and try to have as few people in there as possible,” Baur said. “In the end, public health is a component of public safety.”