DRIFTLESS - While the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution may have struggled with a massive COVID-19 outbreak recently, the local county jails seem to be doing much better in dealing with it.
In fact, Crawford County, where PDCCI is located reported that their jail has not experienced any COVID-19 infection among the inmates or jail staff.
Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick was quick to credit the staff for that accomplishment. And, a robot that kills germs throughout the facility with ultraviolet light.
McCullick is also quick to note that the both the department and the court system were quick to act to reduce the jail population and its an effort that continues amidst the pandemic.
Crawford County currently has just eight prisoners in the jail and 12 more at home being monitored with ankle bracelets.
“It's definitely not what we had prior COVID,” McCullick was quick to acknowledge.
The local law enforcement veteran termed the policy in play now as “Catch and Release.”
McCullick explained that people currently charged with crimes are given court dates without being taken into the jail if they appear to be no harm to society.
So, do they show up in court?
McCullick explained that has been a problem with some of those charged.
“Some just are not reliable to show up and that’s an issue,” McCullick said. “Sooner or later, the jail will be full again. It will be filled to overflowing, when the vaccine arrives and when the virus is over.”
Because the jail population is so low, any new prisoner brought into the facility is held in isolation for 14 days. The staff can use a cell used to hold four to six people for just one person to do the isolation.
While none of the jail staff have tested positive for COVID, three other employees of the department either tested positive or had to quarantine because of contact with someone who had tested positive.
“I just have to give a lot of credit to my staff,” McCullick said. “They have been doing a really good job.”
The sheriff said that holding prisoners in the jail that are bound for state prison is still taking place. However, the department did deliver two inmates to state receiving facility in the last couple of months.
McCullick noted that the department has refused to take some Wisconsin DOC Probation and Parole holds for rule violations under the current conditions. Recently, they declined to hold a take a P&P hold on an individual for smoking pot.
As for the situation in Crawford County Jail right now in the midst of the COVID pandemic?
“So far we’re doing well,” McCullick said. “I’m not going to tell you we’ll always be there.”
As a comparison, the jails daily count prior to COVID pandemic was 41 or 42.
So, now the eight prisoners have a lot more space and the problem becomes boredom. There’s no one with whom they can talk.
Up the road in Vernon County, things are also going well, but there are a few more prisoners, according to Vernon County Sheriff John Spears.
“We’re sitting very good right now,” Spears said.
Like Crawford, Vernon county has stopped taking probation holds.
Like Crawford, new inmates are initially quarantined. Vernon also has a nurse on staff, who tests the new prisoners for COVID.
Spear noted the rural county has many fewer people coming into the building, which is locked down. He pointed out that LaCrosse County has a lot more interaction with municipal officers than Vernon County does.
To his knowledge, Spears said the jail has just had one COVID positive case, which they received from another county jail. The prisoner was asymptomatic and eventually tested negative.
“We haven’t had any spread,” Spears said.
A couple of dispatchers needed to quarantine for contacts with known positives and two deputies were asymptomatic, but tested positive for COVID.
Spears said they are following protocol and limiting contact among staff to stop the spread.
When there was movement at one point to open up county buildings, Spears insisted it not include the sheriff’s department.
“I don’t think we'll ever totally return to normal–a lot of the precautions will stay in place,” Spears said. “Things like the plexiglass and the masks will stay.”
The 120-bed jail was used to house prisoners from Monroe County for a fee, before Monroe County built a new jail.
The Vernon County Jail now holds prisoners for the state and has a range of about 10 to 20 state prisoners at any given moment.
Over in Richland County, jail sergeant Nettie Collins reported that the jail did have two COVID positive inmates during the summer–one in July and the other in August. The prisoners were isolated and quarantined and there was no spread of the viral disease.
Collin also noted that Richland County had refused some inmates due to COVID.
The jail like the others is seeing much lower number of prisoners.
“The officers have been so good about not bringing prisoners in, but getting them into the court system,” Collins explained.
Collins said working with prisoners outside the jail and getting their court appearances scheduled by Zoom meetings has been a big help in keeping the population down in what she called “a pretty small jail.”
Richland County uses one of the holding cells for quarantine and isolation.
Like Crawford, Richland has had to hold inmates sentenced to state prison.
“Little by little they’re taking them,” Collins said. “We still have a couple waiting to go. It’s just been very slow. The state does reimburse counties for holding the prisoners.”
Like elsewhere, Richland is keeping masks on people being booked and the staff is wearing masks and gloves. There is lots of cleaning.
As for the pandemic reality?
“We just want it to be done,” Collins said.
Grant County Jail has had two COVID-positive cases and they occurred just recently, according to Grant County Sheriff Nate Deckman.
"Both were identified during booking and were isolated away from other prisoners in holding cells,” according to the sheriff.
Dreckman said the positive cases were not in the facility very long before they bonded out.
Grant County inmates entering the jail and showing symptoms are tested by the jail nurse. They are put in holding cells for up to three days until the results are known. If they are positive, they will be held in isolation for 14 days.
Dreckman was quick to point out the isolated inmates are a longways from the jail’s general population. He noted there are three doors and two hallways between the holding cells and the rest of the jail.
Like the other jails, Grant County continues to house inmates that have been sentenced to state prison, but have not been accepted by the state yet.
Overall, the new jail facility is doing well space wise, according to Dreckman.
The jail has 48 total inmates and five are off the premises with ankle bracelets. So, there are 43 inmates in the jail.
Fifteen of the inmates are from Scott County, Iowa.
The pre-COVID jail population was in the upper seventies. The population ranged from 66 to 103.
Like other jails, Grant County is taking measures to keep the population down. Dreckman said one change in reducing population is the judges are not issuing failure to pay warrants for unpaid fines and forfeitures. So that population is not coming into the jail.
There has also been some reduction in probation-parole holds as the county has emphasized not picking up people for minor violations.
“Our advice to the deputies and police departments is if you don’t have to bring them to the jail, we prefer you don't,” Dreckman said. “We realize that in the situation involving domestic violence you may have to bring them. But if it is minor disorderly conduct, a summons for a court date may be the thing to do.”
The large, new, well-ventilated Grant County Jail is a lot different from the old jail.
“We are blessed with the facility we have,” Dreckman noted. “If we were in the old facility, I’d be telling you a completely different story.”
Like some of the other jails, Grant County is using a robot that utilizes ultraviolet light to kill germs.
“It does a fantastic job,” Dreckman said of the new technology.