The two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Denton County Jail were caught before mixing with the main population, and one of the inmates has been testing negative following his initial diagnosis, Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree said.
As of Monday, 980 inmates in Texas’ county jails have tested positive for the virus. Harris County Jail has 449 positive coronavirus cases and the Dallas County Jail has 200 cases.
Since testing for the virus first began in Denton County, only two inmates at the Denton County Jail have tested positive.
“We’re very fortunate to only have those two individuals,” Murphree said. “The first one that came in [happened] after we started our [coronavirus] protocol, so we caught him very quickly.”
The Denton County Sheriff’s Office published in late March a list of procedures that the jail has taken to prevent an outbreak at the facility, including daily screenings for staffers and new housing situations for incoming inmates.
Staff and incoming inmates all have their temperatures screened at the door. Staff with temperatures of 99.5 degrees or higher are told to go home while incoming inmates with the same or higher readings are evaluated further.
Denton County Jail inmates are housed in pods — big rooms with 48 beds and a common area for meals. Two pods were set aside in late March for new inmate housing to quarantine them from the rest of the jail population. The second one was established after the first got to full capacity.
Detention officers who came into contact with the two positive cases were also tested, Murphree said. He said they’ve tested negative. On April 30, four jailers were awaiting their test results, according to a report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which oversees the state’s county jails.
According to the policies, the inmates would remain isolated in those pods until two weeks after the date the pod reached capacity. The current jail population is just under 1,000 inmates, which Murphree said hasn’t been the case in a long time. The second inmate who tested positive was hospitalized.
An April 1 report from the commission showed there were 1,051 inmates in the Denton County Jail. The report noted there were 558 available beds.
The commission posts daily COVID-19 reports, as well. When the commission reported on Denton County on April 30, 157 inmates at the county jail who didn’t have the virus were quarantined as the four jailers were awaiting test results.
The first inmate who tested positive was released through a plea deal with the Denton County District Attorney’s Office, and the second inmate has been testing negative for the virus recently but remains in the hospital. Murphree said the plan for hospitalized inmates returning to the jail is to screen them once again as if they are a new inmate.
The procedures report says the sheriff’s office bought personal protective equipment, including N95 respirators, on March 11.
Detention officers are wearing masks, Murphree said, but inmates wearing masks is a fairly recent procedure they’ve implemented.
“We had positives come in [and] then we started requiring them [for inmates],” Murphree said. “The masks are per guidelines. With things we’re hearing, they’re mainly for people who have it to not transmit it. It’s just a safety precaution.”
He said the masks have been hard to come by and the sheriff’s office has been working with Denton County Emergency Management to obtain masks.
“We get as many as we can and have a lot of donations from the community, even the homemade masks,” Murphree said. “We’re using all of those.”
Although the masks are a requirement in the jail, Murphree said he’s not requiring the sheriff’s deputies to wear masks while on duty, although they have been provided with them.
“We’re together all day long,” he said. “My investigators are working in close proximity to each other. … They are provided them and they are instructed to wear them whenever they think it’s necessary or if they’re going into an indoor, [unknown] crime scene, they’re encouraged to put them on.”
Murphree said he hasn’t personally released any inmates, though the court system has arranged personal recognizance bonds and lowered bonds for some inmates in order to get them released.
“We started looking at those defendants/cases immediately to determine what should be done with those individuals,” said First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said. “We did not start giving a bunch of PR bonds nor did we really change our bonds. We worked with the [sheriff’s office] to determine each individual’s circumstances. This pandemic was not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but it was one of many factors that we look at when determining bonds and pleas.”
Beck said in an email Tuesday that the jail population was their focus before the stay-at-home order went into effect.
“We knew that an outbreak at the jail could be life threatening so we made sure to work with the [sheriff’s office] in whatever way they needed us,” she said.