As of Tuesday morning, Santa Rosa County Jail had no cases of COVID-19. Sheriff Bob Johnson said his office is working to keep it that way, in part by limiting who goes to jail.
“We are going to issue a ‘notice to appear’ on things we can,” Johnson said.
That does not mean a free pass on crime. A notice to appear still means the person must appear in court for the crime they are accused of. And serious offenders are still ending up in handcuffs including violent crimes, domestic violence related crimes, driving under the influence and other similar charges.
“We are not going to let anybody out that is violent unless they make bail. That is up to the determination of the judge,” Johnson said.
The officer responding to an incident does have some discretion. While trespassing cases would not automatically require transport to the jail under the new guidance, a couple individuals charged with that crime were processed into custody earlier this week.
Santa Rosa County Jail staff are also taking extra screening precautions for those entering the jail. During processing into the jail, individuals are screened for COVID-19 symptoms, temperature checked and asked questions about travel history.
“If they answer yes to any of that or they have a fever, they are immediately put by themselves in quarantine for 14-days if they are there for that long,” Johnson said.
He said there is concern that if the virus were to find its way into the jail, it could be very difficult to limit spread.
Jail and prison settings are ripe for viral transmission. With layouts that are less than ideal for complying with six-foot social distancing directives. These facilities frequently have large communal areas with several people in close living quarters. Hard surfaces on which the virus can find traction are common, too.
This poses a risk not only for inmates but also staff of these facilities.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton has reported five inmates and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 6, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Blackwater is privately-operated by The GEO Group Inc. under contract with the state. There are 20 inmates at other facilities that have had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 6. Those cases include one case each at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution and Okaloosa Correctional Institution.
Only Blackwater reported staff being sick. According to News Service of Florida reports, some corrections staff have raised concerns about not having access to needed personal protection equipment in the prisons.
Johnson said they are being careful and providing jail staff with the protection equipment needed. He said they have also stepped up cleaning regiments at the jail, especially at high touch points.
According to Escambia County officials, law enforcement officers are not limiting which arrests are processed into the Escambia County Jail. Escambia director of communications Laura Coale said the facility already had strict health screening policies in place for illnesses such as Hepatitis A, so screening protocols were simply modified to include signs of COVID-19.
If an individual shows signs of the illness, they are quarantined within the facility.