A second incoming arrestee has tested positive for COVID-19 at the Mendocino County jail on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. Both infected individuals were asymptomatic and identified during the jail’s intake process. Both were also transfers from outside the county, the first from Tennessee and the more recent from Glenn County. Transfers typically come through county warrants where defendants have been arrested elsewhere and transferred back to Mendocino County. “They were monitored and quarantined,” said Lieutenant John Bednar from the jail, adding that both were cleared to enter the jail’s general population following their respective quarantine periods. “All inmates coming from other facilities are quarantined for 14 days,” he said.
Bednar also said that about a week ago a jail employee tested positive for the coronavirus and is now working from home. “The person had not been on site for several days so tracing was unnecessary,” he said during a phone interview. He added that “a couple of staff members” also reported feeling unwell and were tested, but that both subsequently tested negative for the virus.
Bednar said that the jail’s screening process, an outgrowth of an emergency plan developed back in 2008, has helped keep the coronavirus at bay. “We have a robust screening process,” he said, [a nurse] “asks a series of medical questions, takes temperatures, monitors vital signs, and does a swab test, which is sent to a lab.” He added that the floors and walls of the jail building itself are also sprayed “multiple times a day” with a chlorine wash, and that “staff wear facial coverings while in contact with inmates and all inmates are issued facial coverings and are required to wear them while in community day rooms or outside in the exercise yards.”
“We’ve been doing our darndest to keep everybody safe,” he said.
As of Monday morning of this week, there were 272 inmates housed at the jail, a number Bednar says is creeping up as more inmates re-offend following “no bail” and “zero bail” early releases for non-violent crimes, a policy instituted back in April. “This initially caused a dramatic decrease in the jail population, which was good for helping with our COVID response,” he said. “But now a lot more are coming in on warrants,” he explained, adding that it typically takes “two or three” times [offenses] to end up back in jail. He said that the jail isn’t seriously overcrowded, at least not yet, although more 3-bunk cells now actually house three inmates where only the top and bottom bunks were previously assigned to provide more social distancing. Thirty-five at the jail are also awaiting transfer to state prisons, which stopped accepting transfers as cases of the virus dramatically increased. The most recent figures from The Marshall Project, a non-profit organization focused on criminal justice, reported that, nationwide, at least 121,217 cases of the virus have been reported among prison inmates, 11,388 of them in California.
Bednar said that inmates have adjusted “pretty well” to new restrictions imposed at the jail to protect them from contracting the virus. In-person visits have been suspended, and inmates have to wear masks both inside and outside the jail building─basically everywhere outside of their cells. Meals are served in cells to ensure social distancing, which Bednar said can’t be realistically maintained in the dayroom and other common areas.
But all of these restrictions, however effective at containing the virus, do bring some inter-personal cost. Bednar said that he’s seeing “a slight uptake in arguments” among inmates, especially since heat and smoky air have also limited inmates’ outdoor times. “Anytime you’re locked in one place it raises tensions a little bit,” he said, “and there’s no indication of when it will end.”