While he acknowledged people are sick of hearing about COVID-19, Sheriff Tracy Murphree at a public meeting Thursday talked about mask and vaccine mandates as well as the impact the pandemic has had on jail staffing over the last year.
Murphree was the Rotary Club of Denton’s guest speaker Thursday afternoon at its weekly meeting. Along with talking about COVID-19, Murphree announced an upcoming mobile application for the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, discussed medical care for inmates before and during the pandemic and offered his thoughts on government mandates related to the pandemic.
Speaking about COVID-19 protocols, Murphree said he’s anti-mandate when it comes to masks and vaccines.
“I’m not anti-vax. I’m not pro-vax,” Murphree said. “I’m not a doctor. I don’t pretend to be a doctor. I’m anti-mandate.”
Asked how he’d relate masks or vaccine mandates to wearing seat belts, the sheriff said it’s about someone not sticking chemicals in someone’s body.
“Where do you stop?” he said. “Probably getting a COVID vaccination is a good idea, and probably people should do it. But if the government’s forcing you to do it, where does it stop? What’s next?”
Comparing COVID-related regulations to Texas’ law requiring seat belts, Murphree said he doesn’t like that law but he still enforces it.
Other industries have struggled to keep employees amid the pandemic, and Murphree said it’s no different with jail staff. He said the Denton County Jail is short by 100 detention officers.
“That is a nationwide issue in jails and prisons,” he said. “It’s an issue — you can walk around this town and see how many people have ‘help wanted,’ ‘help wanted,’ ‘help wanted’ [signs].”
But working midnight until 8 a.m., stopping fights and sometimes having feces thrown at you isn’t appealing, he said. Murphree added that he believes they’ll come around back to pre-pandemic and early pandemic staffing levels, when many people were out of work and applied for detention officer jobs.
While they traditionally focused on recruiting 18- and 19-year-olds, he said they’re going to try to attract people between the ages of 30 and 50.
“We’re taking some of that … to recruiting some of the older age groups because they come with life experience, they come with job experience, they come with maturity,” he said.
Murphree has spoken about the pod system at the Denton County Jail but went more in-depth Thursday. Inmates are housed in pods, big rooms with 48 beds and a common area for meals, and one detention officer is with them.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he said the jail set aside two pods for quarantining new inmates. Quarantine would last two weeks, but the quarantine clock wouldn’t start until the pod was full. Once that time was up, those inmates would be introduced into the rest of the jail population.
The quarantine clock takes longer for the female pod, Murphree said, because fewer women are booked into the jail than men.
The jail didn’t have a COVID-19 case until May 2020, about two months after the coronavirus arrived in Denton Couty. As cases of COVID-19 surged throughout the United States last year and this year in waves, it impacted the jail population similarly, he said. Two inmates have died after a COVID-19 diagnosis, and one of those cases was during a surge this summer. A detention officer, Joseph Rogers, and chaplain Eddie Rucker also died this summer.
Although he didn’t have an exact number, Murphree estimated the same percentage of inmates vaccinated equates to the percentage of people vaccinated “out here,” in one Rotary member’s words.
According to The Texas Tribune, 60% of Texans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 51.9% of Texans are fully vaccinated. Inmates can get vaccinated voluntarily through Denton County Public Health.
Murphree left quickly after the event and didn’t respond to a call seeking further comment about the pandemic’s impact on staffing.