Douglas County jail protocol pushes back against COVID-19

Each new inmate is given a mask, screened; fewer booked

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Capt. Darren Weekly with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has had some sleepless nights since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As the man charged with overseeing the Douglas County jail, he’s in charge of the health and safety of every inmate there. With social distancing being one of the biggest ways to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus, he and his team have been faced with a unusual challenge.

“We’re doing everything we can inside the facility that people outside the facility are doing,” Weekly said.

That means separating inmates so they each have their own cell, increasing cleaning measures, passing out masks and gloves and reminding inmates to distance themselves from each other while in the common areas.

They’ve also stopped allowing anyone other than staff to come to and from the building. Work-release programs are frozen, attorneys meet with clients over the phone and no visitors are allowed in person.

They’re able to spread out the inmates because of extra capacity in the jail, Weekly said. When the pandemic began, law enforcement and the jail worked together to keep the population low by no longer booking people into jail over low-level arrests for victimless crimes and small misdemeanors.

“Every time we have a new intake, we run the risk of exposing our facility to the virus,” Weekly said.

That’s why each new inmate is given a mask, screened for COVID-19 symptoms and then spends 14 days in quarantine before joining the rest of the facility. Staff is also screened for symptoms at the beginning of their 10-hour shifts.

“It is very stressful ... I worry about them constantly,” Weekly said of inmates and staff. “I want to make sure I do everything I can to keep them safe and keep them healthy.”

Even with all these measures in place, the highly contagious virus has still made its way into the facility. It started with one inmate who wasn’t feeling well and eventually, 10 inmates and four staff members tested positive. On April 28, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment determined the jail had an outbreak.

“I don’t know how it got in here,” Weekly said. “I wish I did.”

All who tested positive have since recovered and now, the jail is reporting zero cases.

“In large part, we avoided a major spread by quarantining, isolating, providing PPE and frequent cleaning,” Weekly said. 

Some of these measures can be difficult on the mental health of the inmates, as many communal activities have been halted. 

“Some are taking it better than others, it just varies,” Weekly said. “We try to be transparent about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

While things are looking up for now, Weekly isn’t sure he will be able to maintain the zero-case status.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold off as the courts open back up again,” he said. “We’ve already gotten close to not being able to do single cells for inmates.”

As of May 13, the jail had 72 unoccupied cells available for inmates. Weekly noted that number could easily fluctuate by 20 people on any given day.

“We are by no means out of the woods yet. I anticipate there will be another case,” he said. “Just because we don’t have any cases right now, you can’t let your guard down. Someone could unknowingly have it.” 

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