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Social distancing at DeKalb County Jail: officials detail steps to ensure inmate safety

The DeKalb County Jail in Sycamore Wednesday March 18, 2020.
The DeKalb County Jail in Sycamore Wednesday March 18, 2020.

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SYCAMORE – DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said the DeKalb County Jail stopped inmate visitations altogether on Tuesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing.

However, it wasn't the first step the jail took in order to protect inmate health. Scott said jail staff aren't allowing anybody who is symptomatic (fever, coughing, shortness of breath) to come into the jail.

"We're very carefully watching who comes in," Scott said.

As of Friday, no inmates have tested positive for coronavirus.

Scott said the staff started asking the health department questions regarding the viral respiratory disease COVID-19 in mid-February. He said the jail started conducting health screening on inmates in February, too. As of Friday afternoon, the jail housed 76 total inmates, seven of them women, said Joyce Klein, chief of correction at DeKalb County Jail.

Each inmate has their own cell quartered off in blocks, which each have around six, 50-square-foot cells.

Klein said the inmates’ daily routines have changed. In addition to not allowing inmate visitors, the jail ended all volunteer programs two weeks ago and stopped Sunday morning church services about the same time.

“That’s the main thing that’s affected them,” Klein said. “Not having their family and friends visit and not having the programs operating.”

Scott said the prisoners are “safe.”

Inmates housed at the jail are there for serious offenses, said DeKalb County States Attorney Rick Amato.

"When I go through our in-custody list, the people who are in jail are in there for serious charges – murder, predatory assault of a child, armed violence to possession of weapons to numerous [violent offense] violations," Amato said. "I'm not seeing anybody in there on minor offenses or non-violent offenses.”

Klein said the inmates have handled the changes well and that they understand why the changes are necessary.

“They’re staying fairly calm and I believe they’re washing their hands and doing what they need to do,” Klein said. “When we told them of the [program] suspensions, they understood. There was no pushback or [negative] comments.”

She said when the inmates leave their cells – referred to as “dayroom” – it’s tough to give them the six feet of social distancing, especially in the older part of the jail.

“[But the] new part is a lot easier to get six feet,” Klein said. “They’re so used to living together, many [were] together long before this whole situation started.”

Scott said inmates have bar soap and hot water.

Another step the jail is taking to prevent the spread of the virus is staff is issuing health screenings to new inmates who are entering the facility.

"If it does arise, we'll be seeking medical attention to ensure that person's health and safety, as well as the health and safety of all the people who have encountered him or her," Amato said.

To keep inmates healthy, a nurse comes in to the jail at least four days per week to check up on people, Scott said. There is also a doctor on call.

Scott said the jail also has a disinfectant sprayer that it’s had since the jail's expansion in 2018. Staff use it in other areas of the sheriff’s office as needed, as well.

Another area it’s being used is the holding cells, where people go before they are sent to the jail’s general population.

The number of jail officers depends on the shift, Scott said. He said there are between six and 10 officers in the jail depending on what's going on.

Scott said in case of sick employees, the jail is following the recommendations of the DeKalb County Health Department and the Illinois Department of Health, which include the recommendation that sick employees stay home.

Scott said the reduction of inmates – which also helps with social distancing – has been an ongoing effort. Amato said DeKalb County’s bail reform in 2017 changed the county and its jail requirements for non-violent and misdemeanor offenders.

Scott said the jail and the sheriff's office are making a conscious effort to maintain public safety in regards to those who are arrested, as well as keeping COVID-19 out as well.

He said public safety is the priority for making decisions about who to send to jail.

"But rest assured," Scott said. "If they need to be in jail for public safety issues, we'll take them and will continue to do so."

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