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Surge in confirmed jail cases drives calls for release of more Utah inmates

‘We’re just kind of here, sitting ducks, until we get sick,’ inmate says

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SALT LAKE CITY — With a growing spread of the novel coronavirus throughout Utah, an inmate at Washington County Jail wondered why officers were not wearing masks.

Last week, amid a confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail, many who tested positive were moved to a section neighboring the one he shares with others serving out prison sentences within the county facility.

On Thursday, the jail reported that a total of 92 inmates — nearly 1 in 3 incarcerated there — had the virus. The inmate now says it’s a matter of time before he is infected.

“We’re just kind of here, sitting ducks, until we get sick,” he said, asking his name be withheld for fear of retaliation from officials. “Does somebody have to die before you do something?”

Jailers in Washington County and across the state say they have taken widespread precautions to limit the virus from entering and spreading in the close quarters, including releasing hundreds of prisoners early. But inmates and their advocates say the jails remain too crowded to properly isolate those infected or exposed.

The Weber County Jail confirmed 82 infections Thursday among inmates and one employee, a surge it attributes to two new male inmates and others exposed to the virus while on a community work crew in June, when it did not have space to isolate each new defendant for two weeks like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

The inmate in southern Utah said his case manager has not answered his questions about what is being done to help him and others on his own work crew get out. The group of about a dozen have been deemed low risk and assigned to work in the wider community, mowing lawns, cleaning horse stalls and setting up for conventions.

Brett Varoz, chief hearing officer with the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, said his agency continues to review early release submissions from the Corrections Department for inmates within six months of a parole date. He said he did not know how many to date have been sent home early.

The inmate in Washington County is less than two weeks away from the half-year cutoff. His parole date is set for January, a little more than a decade after he was convicted of charges including aggravated burglary and attempted aggravated assault.

Angie Millgate, his former wife, said she has concerns the jail is not following the more stringent protocols in place at the prison.

“My best friend’s life is at risk here,” Millgate said. “I’m just super sad, and frustrated, and scared.”

Utah’s prison system does not have room to hold its roughly 5,700 offenders, so it contracts with several county jails to house about 1,400 inmates. It has reported 14 cases among inmates at county jails, just three at the Draper prison and none at its Gunnison facility.

Mike Haddon, the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, said the prison gave out face coverings for each inmate in a county jail and has coordinated with sheriffs. Although the jails undergo regular audits of standards set by sheriffs and the state, he said prison has limited oversight.

“The Department of Corrections cannot require actions from county jails specifically related to COVID-19, especially as the pandemic is transitory,” Haddon said in a statement. “County jails are independent and operated by elected county sheriffs.”

Early releases of inmates housed in the jails happen occasionally, but are not standard, he added.

Sara Wolovick, an attorney with the ACLU of Utah, is working to change that. She is urging officials at the county, state and federal levels to identify more who can be released ahead of trial or after a conviction, saying “being in jail shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

Wolovick said her organization has been in touch with Weber and Washington county leaders and with about a dozen incarcerated people across the state.

She is also calling for jails to follow through on promises to provide more masks and hygiene supplies to inmates, and require everyone, including employees, to wear the face coverings.

Prior to the outbreak in southern Utah, jail officers were not routinely wearing masks but did so in certain circumstances, like when they were interacting with inmates who showed symptoms and in pre-booking health screenings, said Jake Schultz, chief deputy in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He cited low supply of the face coverings.

“Our primary focus was to keep it out, because we understood that once it got in, it was going to be difficult to contain,” Schultz said. Inmates aren’t required to wear masks now unless they leave their housing unit or interact directly with staff. They are encouraged to wear them in common areas, Schultz said.

He noted the jail conducted widespread testing to get a better picture of the spread, but many confirmed to have the virus have not shown symptoms.

The inmate there said he has not yet been tested. He believes jailers were negligent early on, but said his frustration lies mainly with the state officials who have the authority to grant his release.

He noted officials swiftly transferred inmates from the Daggett County Jail about three years ago amid revelations that officers illegally deployed stun guns on inmates, among other abuses. The deadly virus poses a greater threat, yet he and others remain in the facility, he said.

One good thing, he noted, is that his work crew has developed a greater sense of purpose after being assigned to cook meals, taking the place of usual kitchen staff who either tested positive or were exposed to the virus.

“It’s the first time working for the facility — or for any facility — that I feel like we’re being treated like human beings as opposed to just inmates,” he said.

Still, he’s fearful for his own health and that of his coworkers, including one man who is a cancer survivor in his mid-60s.

“At the end of the day, they should have done everything they possibly could to get us out of here,” he said.