Two dictionary synonyms for the word “custody” are “care” and “protection” and that is what Otter Tail County Jail director, Jim Stewart and his staff are charged with every day of the year.
So when a threat like the COVID-19 pandemic came along and cases of the flu started popping up around Minnesota some new rules had to be established — not all of which sit well with those incarcerated.
Inmates in the county jail have to trust that staff members make the right decisions regarding their health.
On Thursday, the first day that access to the courthouse and jail was officially limited, Stewart had to explain some of these decisions.
“We are not allowing any volunteers into the jail,” Stewart said. “The people who normally go in there for adult education, clergy, attorneys - we are running everything through telephones. It is a top priority to ensure that we do not let the virus get into the Otter Tail County detention center,” Stewart said. “This could have devastating effects not only on inmates but on staff too.”
Stewart emphasized the detention staff was working diligently to make the jail “as safe as we can.”
But what would Stewart and his staff do if the virus did get inside the jail?
“We would handle it the same way as we would if it got inside someone’s house,” he said. “We would self-quarantine, we would take care of the people, we would provide any medical attention we could here.”
Stewart said a serious case of the virus, a life-threatening case, would be transported to the hospital or somewhere they could get treatment.
“What I understand from the COVID-19 and the hospitals is that even if you have symptoms most places just say quarantine in place, watch your symptoms and remain calm about it.”
As of Thursday morning the number of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota stood at 77. The approximate number of patients tested for the virus in Minnesota was 2,762.
“Out of the tests we have had I think less than 3% are testing positive,” Stewart said. “It is more precautionary, to make sure we don’t have someone die from COVID-19.”
Lately, Stewart said he has been thinking about the virus almost every minute of the day.
“The Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners issued an emergency declaration basically to close all public buildings and that would include the Otter Tail County visitation. Effective immediately, the inmate section was notified that visitation is not going to be taking place for the foreseeable future,” Stewart said. “My assumption is through March 31.”
Stewart said that one of the more fortunate aspects of the present threat is that the jail population as of Thursday was unusually low - just 61. The average figure has been 82. The jail has up to 111 beds available and during Stewart’s tenure the jail population from time to time has topped the century mark.
Stewart said that one of the things being looked at when controlling the jail population at this critical time is looking at people who have been in jail for an extended period. The defense attorneys are making motions and requesting the judges review their bond sooner than later for a possible bond reduction.
“Basically to get them out of there,” Stewart said. “We are trying to make sure we keep people as safe as we can.”
Wednesday, jail staff began prescreening individuals in the port prior to coming into the jail. The prescreening consists of going through a questionnaire with the potential inmate and taking their temperature to see if they have any symptoms of coronavirus. Stewart said someone testing positive will not necessarily be taken to the hospital.
“We’d take over precautions to quarantine them within the facility.” Stewart said. “That would be a very, very extreme case.”
Stewart admitted that the current pandemic is the first one he has had to deal with.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” Stewart said. “It’s always a moving target because you are constantly solving one issue and moving onto the next.”
Stewart said the jail population is very aware of the pandemic. “They seem to be very understanding that this is happening through the state and the United States and that we are doing the best we can to make things better.”