HELENA — After large numbers of inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at jails in Cascade and Yellowstone Counties, MTN asked Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton about the testing protocols at his detention center.
Dutton said, so far, they haven’t had any positive tests from within the detention center. He said they are focusing their efforts on keeping the virus from coming in.
“We go through a questionnaire, a long questionnaire with anyone who is coming into our facility,” he said. “We ask questions – where have you been, have you been in contact with anybody who has it – and we take a temperature. If there is any positive indication, we will take them for a test before we bring them in.”
Dutton noted that the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center is substantially smaller than the two that have reported numerous positive tests in recent weeks.
Detention Capt. Alan Hughes estimated they have done about 55 tests – administered either by jail staff or by St. Peter’s Health – on people who might have had exposure to COVID-19. In addition, they had about 85 tests done in mid-June for inmates and staff without symptoms or known exposure. All of those tests have come back negative.
Dutton said the detention center has stepped up its cleaning protocols.
“Normal cleaning is done maybe once a day,” he said. “Now we have cleaning products, cleaning supplies, surfaces are cleaned routinely.”
In addition, detention officers are using additional personal protective equipment.
Both law enforcement and advocacy organizations have noted the difficulty of keeping a virus from spreading within the close confines of a jail – particularly one like Lewis and Clark County’s which is already dealing with overcrowding. The detention center, originally designed for about 80 inmates, held 105 on Tuesday morning.
Dutton said they have procedures for isolating inmates who may have been exposed. Most will be placed in protective custody cells or other locations where they would have limited contact with other inmates or staff. The county has also set up another location for those who need to be isolated but require more security measures.
However, Dutton said it would be very difficult for them to handle it if dozens of inmates were to test positive, as occurred in Cascade and Yellowstone Counties.
“That is why we are so very adamant about cleaning and about testing people when they come in; that would be – I don’t know if we could handle that,” he said.
Dutton said his deputies had been citing some non-violent offenders instead of arresting them, to lower the number of inmates coming in. Now, though, he said they are starting to remove those restrictions.