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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Spokane County Jail protects against COVID-19

UPDATED: Tue., May 19, 2020

Spokane County Corrections Sgt. Justin White has made major personal and professional changes to work on emergency plans to keep COVID-19 out of the jail but also on what to do if the virus does appear. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Corrections Sgt. Justin White has made major personal and professional changes to work on emergency plans to keep COVID-19 out of the jail but also on what to do if the virus does appear. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Trying to keep coronavirus out of the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center has been a big job for Sgt. Justin White.

White started at the Spokane County Jail more than 12 years ago and loves the variety and room for professional growth.

Before the pandemic, White supervised the swing shift, dealing with everything from unruly inmates to scheduling transports. Now he works at the Emergency Operations Center, collaborating with other government and law enforcement agencies to plan for the phases of reopening.

There hasn’t been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in either Geiger or the county jail, but White said he wouldn’t be surprised if one had gone undiagnosed.

“I would honestly be a little surprised if we haven’t had it in here and we just didn’t know it,” White said.

With extremely limited testing and symptoms similar to influenza, White said a case could have been missed.

With that in mind, when the virus first began to spread elsewhere, White decided he would self-quarantine from his family as a precaution.

White’s wife has an autoimmune disease and is diabetic. With so much unknown, the best choice was for White to move into the travel trailer on the couple’s property.

“I didn’t hug my kids for a month,” White said.

Since cases in Spokane have tapered off, White has since returned home, but he said he “still thinks it was the right thing to do.”

Over the last decade, White has poured thousands of hours into making the jail a great place to work.

“The first thing I did was become a field training officer,” White said. “I’m making sure that the people we’re getting in are the people I want to work with for the future.”

White said he looks for people who are honest and have drive, because, while other skills can be taught, it’s hard to teach work ethic.

The biggest thing White said he has learned working in the jail is how to be a good communicator.

“You’re stuck in here with them all day. You learn how to talk to people,” White said. “You learn how to really become a good communicator, if you’re not a good communicator you make this job way harder than it needs to be.”

With years of hard work as a field training officer and now lead firearms instructor, it made sense that White was assigned to work at the emergency center.

When White started working on coronavirus emergency plans, the first step was to limit the number of people going in and out of the jail.

“We have an isolated population, but we’re getting new people in every day,” White said. “If we can keep from bringing unnecessary people in here, the less chance we have of getting it in the facility.”

The county jail is only taking mandatory bookings for charges like driving under the influence, domestic violence, felonies and no bond warrants. Otherwise people charged with a crime will get a court date rather than being jailed.

Both the Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office have hopped on board to reduce exposure, White said.

When someone is booked into the facility, the suspect is left in the police vehicle until a nurse has assessed them.

If a person might have COVID-19, they’re isolated in a separate building in a negative pressure cell (which allows air to flow into the room, but not out into other parts of the building) until they can be tested, White said.

If an inmate likely doesn’t have the virus, they are isolated for two weeks with all the other people booked within the same 24-hour period. After two weeks of isolation as a group, the inmates are then put into their assigned security level with the general population, White said.

Officers in the jail aren’t required to wear masks currently but were given an N95 mask and a cloth mask to wear if they so choose.

White said they have enough personal protective equipment for the current situation, but if things change they would likely need to find more.

Visitation has also been canceled to limit the number of people in the building, even though visits are normally no contact.

“What inmates struggle with is the unknown,” White said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen in their cases. They don’t know what’s going on out in the real world.”

To help with that fear, inmates can make free phone calls and are given free envelopes and paper while visits are canceled.

The population in the jail has been significantly reduced, which allows inmates a bit more space to move about, White said.

The extra movement has helped “reduce angst” among inmates, White said.

He is continuing to work with other agencies to plan for the phases of reopening outlined by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“The current plan is kind of a leg behind what the governor’s doing right now,” White said. “Just to be on the cautious side, because once it’s in this facility, I think it will be hard to isolate it.”

Even with all this planning, White said it seems inevitable a case will show up at the jail.

“At some point, I’m sure we will have a positive case here, but so far, we’ve been lucky,” White said.

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