Washington County Sheriff’s Office responds to public concern after 15 inmates contract COVID-19

Composite image using background image OF Purgatory Correctional Facility and overlay image of inmates taken in Hurricane, Utah, May 2, 2017, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Following numerous emails received by St. George News from different people expressing concern for loved ones currently housed at the jail, Washington County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jake Schultz outlined steps being taken to treat those inmates with COVID-19 and the measures in place to prevent the spread of the illness.

Stock image | Photo by ThinkStock images/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

According to a series of emails and voice messages left by multiple St. George readers since Monday, a potential uptick in the number of inmates infected with the virus is cause for great concern. Moreover, the measures, or lack thereof, according to several of the emails, that are in place are insufficient in stopping the spread of the disease.

One email stated that an inmate who had been sick for three days was taken out of his block, along with another inmate, while those that remained were instructed to “get on their bunks and not get off except to use the bathroom,” conditions that would continue “indefinitely.” A number of inmates in the “D” block were “scared” as stated in the email, and prisoners were “frustrated” with the actions and demeanor of corrections staff. 

Similar comments were outlined in another email from an individual stating that after an inmate requested a mask, he was “removed by force.” Several corrections officers allegedly returned to the block holding shotguns and telling all prisoners to “stay on bunks face down,” and if they did not comply, the email states, then the officers “would use them (the shotguns).” 

One email stated that Purgatory is “having a COVID outbreak, and no one will give us information.” The individual went on to write that inmates have no air conditioning or hot water and are “watching everyone running around in white suits.”

Another individual wrote that their son, who is also in jail in Washington County, recently tested positive for the virus and is in isolation with two other inmates. 

A lack of soap and sanitizer was also mentioned in more than one email, and bunks not being sanitized after an infected prisoner has been removed was also reported multiple times. 

In another email, an individual stated that their brother is an inmate in the jail and believes he contracted the coronavirus while in custody. They continued by saying the inmate is being denied proper health care. 

During a telephone interview, the individual went on to say that their brother has serious medical conditions, including COPD and a heart condition, both of which place him at risk of “dying from the illness,” she said. She added that her brother has not been given proper medication and attempts at having him transferred to a treatment facility or to another housing department have been unsuccessful.

File photo of Klair Mendenhall ministering to an inmate during a barrier session at Purgatory Correctional Facility, Hurricane, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News

The inmate’s sister also reached out to Dr. Terry K Stevenson in Yuma, Arizona for more information, who responded in writing saying that both conditions, COPD and congestive heart failure, “are at increased risk from death from COVID,” but the exact risk level is based on many other factors as well.

St. George News reached out to Schultz, who said that an emergency plan that was developed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak has been implemented, and steps are being taken to reduce the spread of the virus.

The facility established a disease committee specifically to oversee and manage the execution of a four-phase pandemic response plan, according to Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher.

Even so, on Sunday, there were three inmates who were “symptomatic.”

“We pulled out four of the inmates, and three of them tested positive,” Schultz said.

Schultz went on to say the three inmates were quarantined right away, while the rest of the block was tested. They also tracked all inmates that were processed from the intake block to other cell blocks throughout the jail.

Corrections staff found 24 inmates that were processed during that same time period, 12 of which tested positive for the virus. Schultz also said that all told, there are 15 inmates who have tested positive for the virus since Sunday.

“It happened very quickly and is what probably triggered the public concern,” Schultz said, adding that all 15 inmates were medically quarantined immediately.

Moreover, testing has continued, including 100 prisoners scheduled to be tested Wednesday.

Schultz said that even with the recent cases, the emergency plan set up back in March had, to this point, prevented the virus from entering the facility, other than a single case reported in May.

That plan included a “cite and release” policy and a request to law enforcement “to use extreme discretion” when considering who to take to the jail. Those measures were working, and now the second part of the plan goes into effect, which is mitigating the spread of the illness.

“We knew we had to keep it out of the facility,” Schultz said. “Now that it’s here, we have response measures in place to deal with it.”

The facility is broken down into 11 units that house a total of around 310 inmates, versus the 460-470 that were housed in the facility prior to the restrictions being implemented. The lower inmate numbers has also allowed jail staff to clear out a number of blocks that were converted into dedicated quarantine areas.

As to the claims that inmates have no access to soap or sanitizer, Schultz responded by saying, “That is absolutely false. In fact, we are putting extra sanitizer and soap in each of the blocks for the inmates,” he said.

Schultz also said that face masks have not been provided to every single inmate that is booked into Purgatory, but instead, they are provided to all inmates that have been exposed to a prisoner that has tested positive,” including those in the group of 24 that tested negative,” he said.

In essence, once officers get a positive test back, then all prisoners that were housed with that inmate are tested and given a mask.

Right now, there are four housing units that are considered quarantined, he said. The first is a unit that houses all known-positive inmates, while the remaining three house inmates that were exposed to a known-positive prisoner and are awaiting test results that are still pending.

All inmates housed in these blocks are given masks, and the facility has contract physicians that oversee the medical care of those infected.

Additionally, they have negative-pressure cells that house all at-risk prisoners, or those who have pre-existing medical conditions that have placed them at a higher risk of having serious complications from the illness.

Negative-pressure rooms or cells are used to prevent cross-contamination from room to room using a ventilation system that generates negative pressure, or pressure that is lower than that of the surroundings, which allows air to flow into the isolation room but not escape.

“Those inmates are together and further isolated from other inmates,” Schultz said. “They are also directly linked to the medical unit, which is right there.”

Moreover, high-risk inmates are receiving “even more care and monitoring” right now, he said, to reduce the risk of becoming infected. He added that any medications that were prescribed to the inmate prior to being incarcerated are still being administered, and they are under a physician’s care during their time in jail.

Another preventative measure taken back in March included the suspension of on-site visitation, including all legal, personal and religious visits. All visitors are encouraged to use the messaging, telephone and/or video visitation features available on the jail’s GTL communication system.

Schultz also said the jail does have air conditioning, “as it always has had before.”

“For what it’s worth, the inmates are fine as far as their demeanor goes,” he said, adding that at first, many prisoners were nervous and had a great deal of fear, particularly on Sunday, “as anyone would.” But, over the course of the last few days, things have calmed down and most inmates have adjusted fairly well, he said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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