'It's a bad situation': Inside the Greene County jail's COVID-19 outbreak
As Greene County reported a record 83 inmates and 29 staff had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday evening, inmates and their families say they've been left largely unprotected.
Six current and two former inmates, as well as four loved ones of incarcerated people, say late and inadequate masking protocols, as well as a lack of physical distancing and other safeguards, left potentially hundreds of inmates exposed to the virus.
The inmates who spoke with a reporter were all housed in the facility's open, bunk-style "trailer jail," where the outbreak reportedly originated.
Those people said masks were not provided to them until after the first coronavirus case was reported in the facility early last week. Even now, disposable masks intended for a single use are not replaced for several days, something officials say is a necessity due to limited supply.
Inmates also can't keep themselves apart in close-quartered cells or in the relatively small trailer, effectively eliminating the possibility for physical distancing, they said.
In a video call Tuesday night, a handful of inmates stood close together behind the camera. At least two pointed to or took off their masks to say they hadn't been changed for multiple days.
At one point, inmate Nathaniel Persinger looked off-camera and abruptly indicated he had to sign off.
"I think at this point they put everybody's life in jeopardy," he said.
In a text message Wednesday, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott asked about the video interview before referring all questions about the coronavirus outbreak to the department's public information officer, Deputy Jason Winston.
In a list of responses to emailed questions, officials again referenced the video call, highlighting that inmates in the background were not practicing physical distancing.
"Keep in mind that in your video they are not following the rules by social distancing and masking," it said. "The staff separated them at the end of the call because they continue to make poor decisions."
The incarcerated men said even under normal circumstances, the trailer wouldn't allow them to be physically distant. It houses a maximum 108 people in a dormitory-style area with walls of bunks.
In recent days, the population of the trailer dwindled as people tested positive and were sent to quarantine elsewhere, Persinger said. As of Tuesday evening, there were roughly 40 people left.
Wednesday afternoon, Persinger said deputies brought people who had previously tested positive back to the trailer. He said he did not see the results of either of the tests he had taken.
On Thursday, Persinger and another trailer inmate, Paul Halphin, said in messages jail staff informed everyone they had tested positive for the virus.
"I have a 5-month-old son and I am scared to go around him if I get released (after my bond hearing)," Halphin said.
According to the sheriff's office, 170 of the roughly 750 inmates and 102 officers at the jail had been tested as of Wednesday. Of those, nearly half of the inmates and 28 percent of detention deputies had tested positive. One housing unit of 78 people was being isolated, Winston wrote.
When asked whether department officials were concerned about a more widespread outbreak given the number of officers that had tested positive, a spokesman responded "Yes, that is a concern."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for testing in correctional facilities recommends all people with close contacts of known positive cases be tested as quickly as possible.
If the outbreak becomes more widespread, however, the CDC recommends a "broader testing strategy, beyond testing close contacts within the facility, to reduce the chances of a large outbreak."
Winston wrote in the email that four local labs, including Jordan Valley Community Health, CoxHealth, Mercy and Dynamic DNA were processing tests, but he said people had only been tested if they were in the trailer or if they were brought to the facility and showed symptoms.
That leaves open the possibility that people who are not experiencing symptoms could still have the virus, which the sheriff's office said has been the situation in a vast majority of confirmed cases.
Thomas Lee Hand, an inmate, said he didn't really buy into the fear until the virus started spreading around him.
"It's a bad situation," he said. "We're subjected to the coronavirus because of them."
Persinger said people were scared, and he felt like the entire situation could have been avoided with better prevention.
"They've known about this for eight months and they've not taken any precautions," he said.
He said he knew some people who were sick and failed to report it because they worried about what would happen next, and several inmates and family members reported being shut out of calls or visits with spotty WiFi when discussing the virus.
"They're scared to even tell the staff because the way they're treating us," Persinger said.
Outside of the jail, Mariah Norris, whose brother-in-law is incarcerated, said the outbreak is wearing on family members, too.
"He's a bigger dude, and he doesn't seem like he'd be scared of anything, but you can tell in his voice that he is," she said.