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Spokane County jail facilities suspend family visits, educational programs; courts announce slowdowns

UPDATED: Tue., March 17, 2020

Nathan Miller, Aaron Strom and Jody Thomas check on the progress of the pumpkin patch in the vegetable gardens at the Geiger Corrections Center on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Officials also are suspending all educational and therapeutic programs for inmates at Geiger, as well as the inmate work crew. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County officials are barring friends and relatives from visiting inmates in the downtown jail and at the Geiger Corrections Center to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Officials also are suspending all educational and therapeutic programs for inmates at Geiger, as well as the inmate work crew. They are considering “extended lockdowns” of the cellblock starting this week, and will continue screening new inmates for symptoms of COVID-19.

“Social visits have been suspended. Church volunteers and programs have been suspended. Most other nonessential professional visits have been suspended,” Mike Sparber, director of Spokane County Detention Services, said in a memo to employees on Monday.

Attorneys and pretrial services staff may see inmates in the jail’s visiting booths but won’t be permitted into secure areas, Sparber said.

Washington’s Department of Corrections announced it would suspend social visits on Friday. That moratorium applies to all state prisons, including the Airway Heights Corrections Center.

Starting Tuesday, Sparber said, all inmates will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the booking area of the Spokane County Jail.

“The inmate will remain in the patrol car, and the booking nurse will conduct the screening in the auto sallyport,” Sparber said. “Patrol cars will be allowed in one at a time. If the inmate screens positive for potential COVID-19, they will be denied acceptance and sent to the hospital for further evaluation and clearance.”

Meanwhile, jail employees and law enforcement officers will be screened by the on-duty shift sergeant before the start of each shift, Sparber said.

“If an outside agency employee screens positive they will not be allowed into the building,” Sparber said. “If a Detention Services employee screens positive, they will be instructed to return home and report back to work after 72 hours on their next scheduled shift.”

The Geiger facility announced Monday that “all inmate education and behavioral therapy programs at Geiger have been suspended until further notice.”

Geiger also suspended its work crew program, which supplies inmate labor to cities in Spokane County, including roadside trash pickup. To limit crowd contact, Geiger canceled its 77th Breaking Barriers graduation ceremony, which was scheduled to take place Thursday.

County spokesman Jared Webley previously said employees are cleaning the entire jail every day and sanitizing frequently touched areas more often.

Already jailed inmates who present symptoms of COVID-19 would be placed in a negative airflow room, Webley said. None had been placed in that room as of Friday.

In his memo, Sparber said jail officials have suspended all nonmandatory training, and they may suspend a shuttle that transports Spokane County inmates to and from the Benton County Jail.

“We are currently evaluating the jail population in an effort to reduce capacity and minimize risk,” Sparber said.

Any lockdown measures would run counter to recent demands from the Bail Project, a New York-based nonprofit that helps bail out inmates in Spokane County. The organization argues the cash bail system disadvantages the poor, and that many inmates should not be incarcerated before they are tried and convicted.

In a recent letter to city and county leaders, the Bail Project stressed that more inmates should be released on their own recognizance so the county’s jail facilities don’t become hot spots for coronavirus transmission. Lockdowns would be ineffective, the organization argued, because of rapid turnover in the jail population.

“The public health case for reducing our jail population has never been more clear and urgent,” Angel Tomeo, a local Bail Project advocate, said in a statement Monday.

“Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to create nothing short of a humanitarian crisis in our overcrowded jail if court and city officials don’t act quickly,” Tomeo said. “We urge them to act with the urgency and humanity this crisis calls for, and focus on releasing people rather than further isolating them.”

During a news conference Monday morning, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who is leading the county’s emergency response, said he has called a meeting of local fire and police chiefs to discuss how COVID-19 might affect policing strategies.

“We are very cognizant of the issue of the jail right now. Besides being the issue it has always been, this is going to complicate it even further,” Knezovich said. “So right now, we are not going to arrest those who really don’t need to be arrested.”

Knezovich said deputies might be more likely to issue citations or recommend charges to the prosecutor’s office without booking suspects into jail.

“But if it’s a crime of violence or you broke into somebody’s home and we catch you, you’re going to jail,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Spokesman-Review reporters Rebecca White and Emma Epperly contributed to this story.