Life can change in a matter of days, and in some cases, in hours or even minutes. A few days ago, all we could think of was COVID-19. Now our attention is on the recent events surrounding George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
His murder has resulted in national outrage. African Americans and allies flock to the streets in protest. Iowa has shown the same solidarity, but we watch in disbelief as chaos erupts here, too.
As confrontations continue in Central Iowa and other parts of the state, clashes between protesters and police have turned violent at times. On Sunday, the Polk County Board of Supervisors declared a curfew requiring residents to stay at home from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. Some refused to follow this new restriction, which so far has resulted in the arrest of many dozens of people in Des Moines.
I reached out to Polk County Sheriff Kevin Schneider and Major Cory Williams to learn more about the conditions at the Polk County Jail.
Knowing how coronavirus has spread throughout meatpacking plants nationwide, given the proximity among workers, I wondered how our local jail was handling the pandemic. Jails also are high-density facilities, so I wanted to learn what leadership is doing to keep their staff and inmates safe.
Sheriff Schneider told me he learned about the pandemic in late February. In early March, the sheriff’s office started planning by referencing CDC guidelines, which was all they had at the time.
One of the first steps they took was to reduce the jail population to allow social distancing between inmates. They were able to collaborate with the Polk County Attorney’s Office and judges to review cases. Through a review of pending cases, the jail population was reduced from 1,150 incarcerated individuals to about 700.
The sheriff said this practice is an ongoing process. They review cases every two weeks to see who they have in custody and who is eligible for release.
Major Williams added that another important piece of keeping everyone safe is to educate their staff. This included sharing all they knew about the virus, how contagious it is, how it spreads and the importance of social distancing.
They also implemented PPE protocols, although there was a shortage of protective equipment at that time. The department had a small supply at the beginning, which they have been able to increase over time.
Leadership at the jail had a primary goal, to isolate their inmate population as much as possible so they could prevent the spread of COVID-19 once was it was confirmed in an inmate. They stopped visitors from coming to the jail and provided accommodations for those visits to take place virtually.
As of May 29, the sheriff said 119 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. He insisted that although the number seemed high, it was important to remember 60% of the population has been tested. Many of the positive cases were asymptomatic, he said.
Once an inmate begins to show symptoms, they are sent to their comprehensive medical provider inside the jail to evaluate and test them. The inmate then is moved to a designated and isolated area within the facility.
The process applies to jail staff, too. They are at high risk even while using PPE. Testing is extremely important. Among staff, they have eight confirmed positive cases.
Communication has been a top priority, Williams said. There is diversity within the inmate population and that also comes with language barriers at times. He said the jail uses a language line (a phone service that provides interpretation in multiple languages) to assist in sharing information with inmates.
They also have some bilingual staff that can assist in keeping inmates updated and educated about the virus.
Sheriff Schneider said that when individuals reside in the Polk County Jail, they are treated with respect and dignity, and that staff is doing their best to keep everyone safe. They are trained about the virus and provide 24/7 medical care, something many in the general population lack.
After more than three months into this pandemic, we have learned that prevention and communication play a key role in controlling the spread of COVID-19.
If companies, institutions, and organizations care for their clients, staff and the community, they will do everything in their power to protect them from harm. It is not just the right thing to do, is the humane thing to do.
The Polk County Jail is a public institution. They are here to serve the community, even during the unpleasantness of incarceration. The jail took necessary measures, paid attention to CDC guidance, moved quickly and acted humanely.
It is incomprehensible that meatpacking plants profiting from people who want and need those jobs, did not step up to the plate and do the right thing, the humane thing, before cases at their facilities overwhelmed the workforce.
By Claudia Thrane
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.