Sheriff: Inmates and staff with COVID-19 have recovered

  • Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane says some 20 inmates and five staff members at the Hampshire Jail and House of Correction who were sickened by the coronavirus last month have now recovered. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2020 4:01:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Any inmate or staff member who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction has now fully recovered, Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane said Tuesday.

In total, 20 inmates and five staff members had tested positive for the infectious and deadly disease, according to the sheriff. As of Tuesday, all inmates have returned to the population, and the previously ill staff members are in the process of returning to work.  

“I do feel there’s a certain relief to making sure that everything is under control,” Cahillane said Tuesday. “But I’m also a realist and I’m not so naive that things can’t change in a heartbeat around here. That’s part of what corrections work is. And it’s basically how the staff react to that change is how we maintain that control and keep things safe.”

Despite implementing preventive measures such as a no-visitor policy, screening for fevers among staff coming into work and isolating new arrivals to the jail, the coronavirus still managed to penetrate the facility’s walls. On April 10, Cahillane announced that one inmate and one staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.

Cahillane said Tuesday that senior staff at the jail met every day during its outbreak, leading to a “team approach” which he said worked well. As soon as his staff saw the first sign of an inmate not feeling well, Cahillane said, each inmates’ temperature was taken three times a day. When someone spiked a fever they were immediately pulled out to be checked, according to the sheriff. Inmates were quarantined once they showed one symptom, he said.

“We had to have the cooperation of both the security staff and the medical staff to get that done,” Cahillane said. “That may sound like a simple thing, but it really is a lot more work than people would realize. But it was well worth the time and effort.”

Inmates were amenable to wearing masks to help prevent transmission of the disease, Cahillane said, noting inmates have been given three masks that they wear whenever they’re not alone and that the jail is practicing social distancing.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in immense legal pressure across the state to release more incarcerated people due to the infectious and deadly nature of the disease. The state Supreme Judicial Court made a ruling in early April that allowed pretrial detainees with nonviolent charges to petition for release, but argued it was a power of the executive branch to release already-sentenced people. Some in the legal community have said this decision does not go far enough in releasing inmates.

According to state figures from May 11, 15 inmates have been released since the SJC’s ruling at the Hampshire County Jail; its inmate population has decreased from 167 on April 5 to 125 on May 10. In late April, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan told the Gazette that there were 36 pretrial detainees held under his jurisdiction between Hampshire and Franklin counties, down from 76 people. Case reviews were ongoing as of April 24 at the jail.

A total of 507 Massachusetts prisoners and 293 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and eight have died as of Wednesday, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services, which is currently taking legal action in an effort to release more incarcerated people in the state.

One challenge the jail had to deal with was a lack of videoconferencing equipment needed for inmates once courthouses shut down and proceedings were held virtually, Cahillane said. He said it took seven days for the jail to receive and set up the equipment, which cost $25,000. Staff at the jail had to find alternative ways to get people to their court hearings, he said.

“I would hope that, going forward, that the court system and attorneys would say, ‘This is a valuable piece of equipment and we should continue to use it,’” he said.

One of the most striking developments of the jail’s COVID-19 outbreak came when staff decided to test 23 asymptomatic inmates who had been living in the same unit as 12 infected inmates. Test results found that eight of those 23 inmates had contracted the disease without showing any symptoms, and Cahillane said Tuesday that these people were cleared by medical staff without ever being symptomatic. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were no inmates currently showing symptoms or awaiting COVID-19 test results, Cahillane said. Inmates are having their temperatures checked every day and new arrivals are isolated for 14 days. There are currently no plans to test any more asymptomatic inmates, he said.

“It’s not necessary at this point in time ... I think we have a secure enough environment right now,” Cahillane said. “But I’m making sure that the units are kept at a small enough group and that we continue to monitor.”

When asked if the jail will be modifying its protocol in any way following its outbreak of COVID-19, Cahillane said, “I don’t think there’s anything else we can do, unless we tested every person coming into the building every time they came into the building … and unfortunately, that’s not realistic at the present time.”

Though the situation at the jail may have stabilized, Cahillane said his staff is still taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. He said that the jail will have to get used to a “new normal” even when restrictions start to ease.

Cahillane credited his staff and their daily work for keeping the facility safe. But Cahillane said he makes it clear to employees that the COVID-19 threat is far from over.

“I preach all the time to the staff, ‘Don’t let your guard down,’” Cahillane said. “‘Because we don’t know what tomorrow brings — we don’t know what tonight brings.’”

Michael Connors can be reached at 
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