Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, Sept. 1 @ 3:38 p.m. / COVID-19, Health

Inmate's Family Member Says Del Norte Jail Staff Aren't Masking, Disinfecting; COVID Protocol Includes Releasing Positive Inmates, According to Undersheriff

The Del Norte County Jail hasn’t been immune to the surge in COVID-19 cases the community at large has experienced in recent weeks.

But while a representative of the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office says there are masking and disinfecting requirements as well as testing and quarantine protocols in place, a family member of at least one inmate says it's not enough.

“There are inmates that have COVID and are positive and instead of getting them out of there, they’re mixing with the general population,” Melissa Huston, whose former husband and the father of her children has been at the jail for about two weeks, told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Tuesday. “They’re not mandating inmates wear masks. I was in there for a visit for my son and none of the staff were wearing masks and they weren’t cleaning behind visitations.

Huston said her former husband was booked into the Del Norte County Jail about two and a half weeks ago on a felony possession of a firearm charge. She said while she was visiting him on Saturday with her son, she saw other members of the public walking into the facility without masks.

When she spoke with her former husband on Sunday, Huston said he told her he felt lousy. On Monday, Huston said, her former husband told her he was sick.

“He said,' I know my body,'” Huston told the Outpost. “'I have a fever. My head is pounding, my chest is tight.' I asked, ‘Can you get juice?’ He said, ‘No. They’re having us drink tap water and the tap water tastes like rust.’”

Huston said she brought her concerns to the Del Norte Public Health Branch and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, who referred to her Public Health.

Melody Cannon-Cutts, program manager for the Public Health Branch, confirmed that her staff has gotten complaints about the jail.

Though the Public Health Branch is responsible for investigating all positive COVID cases within the county, the jail is responsible for the inmates that test positive, Cannon-Cutts said.

“The health officer is aware of some concerns and we are going to be looking into them,” she told the Outpost on Tuesday.

According to Undersheriff Randy Waltz, the Del Norte County Jail doesn’t do routine testing for COVID-19 among its inmates. The jail tests for COVID when anyone displays symptoms, he told the Outpost.

The jail had 10 “presumptive positive” COVID-19 tests on one day last week, according to Waltz. Since then, four inmates were “presumptive positive” for the novel coronavirus, he said. During the latest COVID-19 surge, Waltz said, the jail quarantined five inmates who tested positive and released three inmates that had served up to 90 percent of their sentences.

The Del Norte County Jail also medically interrupted the sentences of six inmates who signed promises to return in about one month.

“Some of them have obligations to probation, so we routinely advise the probation department of who we intend to release and with their assistance, we make the decisions,” Waltz told the Outpost. “They are given information from our medical staff on proper steps to follow upon their release and that is also coordinated with our Public Health department. Just like any other adult in our society, they have a responsibility to make the decisions.”

According to Waltz, inmates who test positive are typically quarantined together unless an individual inmate can’t be housed with others.

The jail is currently housing 64 inmates, according to Waltz. It can house up to roughly 100, he said, but maintenance and quarantine issues has reduced usable space inside the facility.

Jail staff routinely sanitize all surfaces and are required to wear masks when they’re indoors and “use cautionary measures.”

“We are designating a specific housing unit for quarantine,” he said, adding that whether an inmate is quarantined with other COVID positive inmates depends on their classification and if they were housed together prior to the positive test.

When asked about jail staff, Waltz said though he knew some reported positive for COVID-19 he couldn’t say how many were positive currently.

“Even with our reporting to the state, we don’t report numbers unless there are more than 11,” he said. “If we have positives, we report to it (as) ‘Less than 11,’ because of privacy concerns.”

Waltz said the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, has received complaints from one person and “it’s not the first complaint we’ve received from that person.”

“We regularly receive complaints from the individual and we have checked into the allegations and we haven’t discovered any violations,” he said. “We have reminded all of our staff about the rules and reminded them to make sure they’re following the rules.”

Waltz said jail officials haven’t received grievances from inmates about how it’s handling the pandemic.

Huston said she has complained to jail officials about how her former husband is being treated and the lack of safety measures she’s seen during a global pandemic to no avail. She said she’s not just worried for her former husband, but the other inmates as well.

“If somebody dies in there it’s going to be a huge issue with attorneys, lawsuits,” Huston said. “It scares me to walk in the grocery store, I can’t imagine being inside a room with tons of people coughing.”

On Tuesday, the Public Health Branch received no reports of new COVID-19 cases among Del Norte County’s incarcerated population, which includes cases at the jail and at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Since the pandemic began, there have been a total of 286 COVID-19 cases among jail inmates and prisoners, the Public Health Branch reported Tuesday.


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