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Pennington County Jail creates quarantine lockdown units to prevent COVID-19 spread

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The entrance to the Pennington County Jail. 

The Pennington County Jail is using quarantine units with 23.5-hour lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for inmates who test positive after going through the intake process. 

Compared to prisons “the jail population is more fluid and most inmates are not sentenced, so numbers change rapidly as do cell block designations,” said Chief Deputy Brian Mueller.

“Quarantines and isolations are used to minimize exposure and facility spread,” according to Chief Deputy Brian Mueller.

The jail already had quarantine lockdown units for new inmates but is now creating the units for inmates who develop COVID-19 after going through intake.

“We have implemented quarantine lockdowns in other housing units where inmates have tested positive or had direct exposure to stop the spread of the virus,” Mueller said.

The jail has 34 housing units and uses five for intake quarantine units, Mueller said. Each new inmate spends eight to 14 days in intake depending on their classification and the jail census. They are then transferred to a unit for pre-trial detention or to serve their sentence.

The facility created five post-intake quarantine lockdown units “at the height of inmate infection,” when 29 inmates had active infections around Oct. 13, Mueller said. The jail is now down to three units filled with people with positive cases and those who had close contact with them.

“This number is fluid day to day based on the number of positive cases, intakes and exposures within the jail,” Mueller said.

The intake and post-intake quarantine units involve a 23.5 hour lockdown, where inmates are let out of cells in cohorts for 30 minutes a day to shower, make phone calls or take care of other business, he said. Meals are served inside the cells.

Joseph Flying Horse told the Journal last Thursday that his cell block went into lockdown on Oct. 20 after someone tested positive for the virus.

Flying Horse, a 41-year-old detained pre-trial on federal firearm charges, said inmates are usually let out two at a time for their 30-minute break, but one day groups of three and four people were let out at a time. He said staff usually takes inmates’ temperatures during their break.

The process “makes no sense because our cell block is already quarantined from other cell blocks and each inmate in my block comes into contact with things every other inmate touches without being cleaned,” Flying Horse said. He said the lockdown portion of the quarantine “feels like undue punishment.”

Flying Horse, who is representing himself in court, said he’s afraid he will miss hearing deadlines due to not being able to access the electronic law library during the lockdown. Mueller said the law library is continuing its regular rotation and can be requested if special access is needed.

Other precautions

The jail, which has 490 inmates and 145 employees, has seen 56 COVID-19 cases among inmates and 37 among staff as of Monday evening, Mueller said. Three inmates and eight employees had active cases as of Monday.

“Our recent rise in inmate and staff cases has corresponded with the rise in our community and state,” Mueller said. “I am very proud of the planning and response of our staff to quickly address the rising cases and help bring them back to a much lower number.”

“Since the pandemic began, the jail's response has been fluid as community spread has varied,” Mueller said. “The jail continues to follow CDC guidelines. Mechanisms such as added sanitation, screening, distancing, masks, and more extensive personal protective equipment have been introduced and modified as necessary.”

Inmates have been required to wear masks in units that are quarantined or have open bays — shared living spaces with multiple bunks — for several months, Mueller said. But staff have only been required to wear masks since about three weeks ago.

The increase in cases at the jail was mentioned by federal Judge Jeffrey Viken on Oct. 19 when he sentenced a woman who stole money from the Rush hockey team. He sentenced the highly immunocompromised woman to prison but said she could turn herself in once a prison is selected rather than wait in jail. The lockdown and "outbreak" were also mentioned by a defense lawyer on Monday at the Pennington County Court when talking about her need to visit her client. 

Lawyers can visit clients in-person or use confidential phone calls, video visits, email and mail, Mueller said. Loved ones can use a free video chat service in the jail's lobby on weekday afternoons or pay to send letters, emails, phone calls and video messages from home, according to the jail's website.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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