Sedgwick County sheriff addresses COVID-19 outbreak at county jail

Sedgwick Co. sheriff addresses COVID-19 at the jail
Published: Aug. 25, 2020 at 5:49 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The Sedgwick County Jail is one of the largest concentrations of COVID-19 in the county as, since the end of July, nearly 750 inmates have tested positive for the virus.

Tuesday, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter discussed the issue with Eyewitness News, explaining how his department and the county are working to respond to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the jail.

The situation at the Sedgwick County Jail escalated quickly. On July 30, two inmates tested positive for the virus. That number jumped into the hundreds as the entire jail population was tested earlier this month.

Easter said the outbreak comes as the jail faces compounding issues with the continuing pandemic.

“It’s been a mess, I’ll be real honest with you,” Easter said. “It’s nothing that we’ve ever had to face before.”

The climbing COVID-19 case count at the jail is taking its toll. As of Tuesday morning (Aug. 25), the case count includes 742 positive tests and 1,136 negative tests since the end of July.

“Space is limited, let alone our population being what it is. So, when you think about all the social distancing, all the stuff that seems to work outside, we’re limited on what’s going to help us here,” said Easter.

As of Tuesday, Easter estimates there are 350 active cases at the jail.

“(There is a) transient population, so they’re in and out of jail all the time. So, a lot of these folks have been released. Several of them have what we would term as ‘recovered,‘” Easter said.

He said when an inmate bonds out of jail or is granted release by a judge, that inmate can no longer be held in jail, even if they have COVID-19.

“It’s illegal for us to hold somebody past the time that they’re released, so have no option what so ever but to release. The health department is providing us with some pamphlets to hand to the person when they’re leaving to remind them to quarantine, to isolate. All those things they would tell you if you or I went to go get tested and came back positive, so we’re giving them that information,” he said.

Sheriff Easter said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have the discretion to release inmates, which has to come from the court system. Unlike earlier this year when inmates were released to make more room in the jail, it’s not as viable an option right now.

“What’s gone on now is that over the course of the summer, violent crime is up in this community, and we’re really looking at the numbers and there’s not a lot of people that we can release at this point that are not sitting here for pretrial felonies mainly on violent crimes.” Easter said, “We have 98 murders in our custody right now. That’s part of the problem now why we’re not able to get the population reduced. A lot of those folks we could are gone. It’s problematic. "

Also, the court system has largely been halted as a result of the pandemic.

“Assembly line, we hold them till disposition of the case and they go wherever they go,” Easter said. “They get released, they go to prison, they go to a mental hospital, those types of things. All of that’s shut down right now.”

He added, “We have 69 people here right now that should be in prison. KDOC shut their doors on us, so that 69 people that we shouldn’t be housing at this point. Don’t blame the other counties where we place prisoners when we’re overcrowded. They don’t want COVID inside their jail from one of our inmates. I don’t blame them. So, it’s all starting to really affect us because the court systems have been shut down so a lot of the cases that could have maybe gone through the system, maybe they were found not guilty, guilty or plead, none of that’s taking place to relieve the population. When I say none of it, there’s plea deals but none of the trials are taking place.”

Inside the jail, the sheriff’s office tries to separate those who are just arrested and booked to quarantine for 10 days, those who test positive for COVID-19, and those who test negative.

“We’re overcrowded in folks that tested negative and the positive ones,” Easter said. “We’ve got some beds opening.”

Also contributing to the jail’s limited space is that inmates are limited on what other inmates they can interact with, based on their crimes.

“A lot of these folks are flagged against each other. So, your murderers, if you go other folks in here, they can’t have contact with them. Or sex offenders, same way,” Easter explained.

Easter said another challenge is compliance with health guidelines. He estimates about 10 percent of inmates in the jail wear face masks.

“Other than telling them, ‘you need to wear a mask,’ we’re not going to use force on them,” Easter said. “We’re not going to handcuff them for 24 hours a day so they can’t take off their masks.”

Staffing shortages is yet another issue with about 60 open positions and another 30 detention deputies currently out because they tested positive for COVID-19. Easter said most of the inmates who tested positive for the virus are asymptomatic. As of Tuesday, he said the jail only has eight people showing symptoms.

Tuesday, Sheriff Easter also had a discussion with the Greater Wichita Ministerial League about concerns and to answer questions.

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