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A jail in Northwest Florida is continuing to run inmate crews that augment sheriff's office and county services during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Maj. Cory Godwin, director of jail operations at the Walton County Jail, confirmed the continued use of inmates Tuesday after families of inmates reached out to Gannett reporters with concerns about their safety.
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Jails and prisons, which are more susceptible to the virus spreading, have become a hot topic of discussion as the number of cases and deaths associated with COVID-19 continue to rise.
While the Walton County jail has taken several steps to improve inmate safety and has yet to have an inmate or staff member test positive, Godwin said a positive test would trigger work crews being shutdown.
"It is within our contingency plan," Godwin said. "For any positive test of staff or any inmate, we would drawback and not send any inmates."
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The inmate crews in Walton County augment some county and sheriff's office services such as the jail's food supply, the landfill and animal control.
Working part of the inmate crews is voluntary and all inmates who participate are given personal protection equipment and subject to additional screening such as temperature checks, Godwin said.
He also added that outside workers are all being housed in a separate pod to reduce the chance of transmission.
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Walton County's landfill, which sits on the same campus as the jail, is one service that relies heavily on the six-person inmate crew.
Godwin said the jail's inmates typically operate heavy machinery to move debris, household debris, mattresses and appliances. Jail inmates are not involved in the landfill's recycling operations.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the virus could survive up to three hours in the air, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on glass and stainless steel.
"It’s relatively obvious they don’t come into contact with anything contaminated," Godwin said.
Public Information Officer Corey Dobridnia added that the inmate crew at the landfill does not have any contact with the outside public.
Inmate crews from the Walton Correctional Institution, a nearby state-run prison, did assist with the recycling operations but that stopped when the Department of Corrections suspended outside work squads in response to COVID-19.
Godwin said the sheriff's office was asked about picking up those duties but declined.
Along with the landfill work crew, the jail also has inmates work on its on-campus farm, which helps offsets food service, and in animal control.
"We have a small contingent of female inmates," Godwin said. "They work in an outside area where they clean vegetables before it goes into a large freezer or the kitchen."
With its lobby currently closed to the public, inmates working in animal control are primarily caring for them, he said.
To safeguard inmates and staff at the jail, the Sheriff's Office has implemented several measures to combat the spread of the disease.
Along with additional screening and "doubling down" on personal protection equipment, high touch areas are being cleaned at least three times a day while linen service has increased two-fold.
Although inmates have access to antibacterial soap, the jail is not permitting alcohol-based hand sanitizers, calling them a fire and intoxicant hazard.
Advisories from the CDC state "sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60–95% are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers."
Inmates that exhibit symptoms are being isolated and placed in reverse flow cells for monitoring. Recently, a few inmates did exhibit fevers but did not test positive for COVID-19, Godwin said.
The jail's inmate count has also been reduced due to a combination of the issuance of more notices to appear instead of arrests, lower crime and more inmates being released through judicial orders.
With 26 miles of beaches, the county normally has its fair share of spring breakers, including a few that find their way to jail. But with the Sheriff's Office looking to avoid nonviolent arrests, the issuance of a notice to appears has allowed them to control the jail population.
Godwin said the jail is housing 383 inmates out of a capacity of 580. That occupancy number is about 100 fewer than normal, he said.
Despite many of the measures being implemented in a crisis, Godwin said many of them, including issuing more notice to appears in place of arrests and using technology to avoid unnecessary jail movements, make sense anyway.
"I’m hoping there’s some good stuff we can continue," he said.
Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or firstname.lastname@example.org