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As COVID strikes Montana jails, sheriffs struggle with core problem: overcrowding

Posted at 5:28 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-27 14:28:37-04

BILLINGS- About 30 Yellowstone County inmates who tested positive with COVID-19 in recent weeks in Billings are nearly ready to move out of the jail’s isolation area and back into the general population after days of monitoring by jail medical staff.

As that happens, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder says testing for COVID and monitoring for symptoms will continue to take place at the detention facility for the prolonged future.

Linder said he had a feeling months ago when the pandemic hit that he’d eventually be dealing with an outbreak because of the biggest problem plaguing his jail and others in Montana: overcrowding.

“We've got a great staff here. They do a good job,” said Linder. "We've got 24-hour medical, and so they're able to keep an eye on things and manage it. And that's what we do.”

The inmates tested positive last week and were moved into the jail’s isolation area, which was converted because of renovations at the detention facility.

The tests were administered to an entire unit in the jail after one male inmate first tested positive.

And other jails around Montana are also seeing cases of the virus also emerge.

On Tuesday, a Missoula County inmate tested positive during a routine screening and health assessment during booking.

Before that, Cascade County reported 55 cases of COVID-19 found in inmates and staff at the county jail. Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said the inmates were displaying no symptoms to mild and severe symptoms.

Back in March, the Montana Supreme Court asked judges across Montana to release nonviolent inmates from Montana jails to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“I think we were down to about 330 to 340 inmates at one time,” said Linder.

However, the Yellowstone County jail didn’t stay that way for long.

“We knew those people would be back. We anticipated what was going to happen, and we prepared for it,” he said.

However, the issue of jail overcrowding in general is harder to prepare for and remains a struggle for many Montana counties, said Linder.

Then a pandemic complicates things.

As of Wednesday, those with the jail reported having roughly 480 inmates in the facility. Linder says the jail teeters on and off roughly 500 inmates on any given day.

An unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s impacted capacity at the jail? A spike in domestic abuse cases, he said.

“The issues that we're seeing now, probably because of the lockdowns and, you know, a lot of people staying at home, is the rise in domestic cases,” said Linder. “And they go to jail.”

Linder says in domestic cases, violent offenders go to jail, no exceptions, and room must be made.

Back in March, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath said due to the confines of jails, it would be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus.

But Linder said, despite an outbreak in COVID-19, Yellowstone County has been able to contain the virus with a plan in place for isolation and testing.

“We kept room available for isolation. We kept room available for quarantine and that's what we're doing now, and we continue to grow," he said.

Much of the stress on the jail as well, is beyond the control of Yellowstone County. Linder says 80 of the inmates are Montana Department of Corrections holds.

“We’re crowded, and we're dealing with it,” he said.

And Linder says those state inmates will not move any time soon, especially with new COVID cases.

“There will be people that some of the citizens would love to see in jail. But it's simply because there's no room,” said Linder. “But we've got a great staff down here. They do a good job. We've got 24-hour medical and so they're able to keep an eye on things and manage it and that's what we do.”

When a suspected case of COVID-19 comes up, each inmate is tested.

Once there is clearance from medical staff, the sickened inmates will move out of isolation.