‘We are sitting ducks in here’: Inmate concerned, even as Williamson Co. jail ramps up cleaning, isolation measures

Investigations

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — As cases of COVID-19 spread in county jails across Texas, Williamson County is still reporting zero confirmed cases of coronavirus.

An inmate in the jail there told KXAN he’s concerned without more access to soap and cleaning supplies, saying it’s “only a matter of time.”

“It’s scary. We talk about every day,” inmate Joe Ramirez said. “We are freaking out because we are sitting ducks in here. No matter what we say to them, they don’t care.” 

Ramirez said he’s more concerned about the lack of sanitation or crowding in common areas.

“The phone I’m talking to you on has not been disinfected since I’ve been here,” he said.

He said he filed a grievance, asking for more soap and cleaning supplies.

“I’ve got a family too, and I want to be safe.”

JOE RAMIREZ, INMATE IN THE WILLIAMSON COUNTY JAIL

But a spokesperson for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said, “We started issuing additional soap to all inmates for the purpose of washing their hands four weeks ago.

They said they also began sanitizing inmate areas including, day rooms, pods, bathrooms, housing units and common areas three times per day. Areas like Booking and medical rooms, with large amounts of inmate movement are sanitized every two hours.

The Sheriff’s Office said they have also modified the way they process new inmates.

“The officers who work the new intake and quarantine area do not enter the main jail for any reason as to lesson the possibility of them becoming infected and transmitting the virus to the main jail.”

WILLIAMSON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

“Every inmate who enters the jail is quarantined in a single person cell for 14 days,” they said. “This is to prevent the COVID-19 virus from entering the housing units of the jail.”

They explained that the intake areas even has it’s own air handling system to prevent cross contamination, and the officers who work with new inmates do not enter the main jail “for any reason.”

Ramirez said he’s still concerned it’s not enough, because of the close quarters inside the jail. He’s worried no one is encouraging or enforcing social distancing.

“We’re all bunched up under the TV in a group of no less than 30 people watching the news about ‘6-feet social distancing,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office said, “Social distancing is encouraged when possible. Due to the construction of the facility, social distancing is difficult at times. Supervisors are encouraging their staff to keep social distance when dealing with inmates, this has not been an issue since our officers are trained to leave a reactionary gap between themselves and the inmates they are interacting with.”

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for their office told KXAN they do not see overcrowding being an issue. Right now, they are reporting 358 inmates, down from more than 500 inmates back on March 10. At total capacity the Williamson County jail holds 1,164 inmates.

As far as personal protective equipment, the Sheriff’s Office said, “masks and gloves have been issued to trusty inmates for use during their work assignment.”

They added that every staff member has been issued PPE, including N95 face masks and gloves. They said particularly in the booking area, staff has been issued face shields “due to the high possibility of being spit on by incoming inmates.”

The Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody told KXAN in an email they reached out to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards were told they were in compliance and “following the plans of the commission.”

The Commission’s Executive Director could not speak to individual cases, but said they are still investigating complaints as they did before the pandemic. He could not tell KXAN if they were conducting additional checks on whether jails were complying with these recommended guidelines.

The Commission has sent out several “technical assistance” memos to all the sheriff’s offices and jail administrations, with recommended guidance on reducing the spread of the virus.

The memos point to CDC guidelines for detention centers, including these prevention techniques:

  • Ramping up cleaning schedule & hand hygiene reminders
  • Limiting transfers between facilities
  • Screening everyone coming in for symptom (new intakes, staff)
  • Implementing social distancing
  • Making sure everyone knows what to do if they have symptoms
  • Consider suspending visitation

The CDC also recommends these management techniques, if a case is confirmed at the facility:

  • Suspending all non-medical transfers
  • Integrating screening into release planning
  • Coordinating with public health
  • Masking and medically isoltating symptomatic people
  • Identifying and quarantining close contacts
  • Wearing recommended PPE
  • Providing clinical care or transfer for care
  • Communicating clearly & often

As of Friday, the Commission reports 142 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in county jails across the state, along with 147 jail staff. Here are the county jails with active positive test confirmations:

  • Bexar County: 10 inmates, 25 jail staff
  • Dallas County: 48 inmates, 18 jail staff
  • Denton County: 1 inmate, 0 jail staff
  • Gregg County: 1 inmate, 3 jail staff
  • Harris County: 68 inmates, 93 jail staff
  • Hidalgo County: 1 inmate, 0 jail staff
  • Montgomery County: 1 inmate, 0 jail staff
  • Tarrant County: 5 inmates, 1 jail staff
  • Webb County: 7 inmate, 7 jail staff
Response from the Williamson County Sheriff regarding measures they are taking to prevent the introduction or spread of COVID-19 in the jail.

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