PHOENIX (3TV/CBS5) -- The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office gave details to the new protocols that have been put in place at county jails due to the COVID-19 crisis. During a news conference Thursday afternoon, Sheriff Paul Penzone talked about the changes made to programs within the detention system to keep inmates and employees safe.
Every inmate will be provided with a surgical mask.
"They get one mask," Penzone said. "If they ask for additional masks, they are provided. We are trying to manage to make sure they aren't wasteful and they get fully used."
The county jail system has gotten around 50,000 inmate masks, and about half of them have been distributed so far. But Penzone says it's vital that no one is wasteful. "We do not deny them these masks. But we expect them to be responsible in the use of them." Employees have also been given N95 protective masks.
Inmates are being issued bars of soap and access to cleaning supplies at no charge. The sheriff addressed concerns that MCSO is only cleaning inmate space once a week.
"We provide the inmates with sanitizers and other chemicals so they can keep their spaces clean," says Penzone, emphasizing that it has to be a joint effort between inmates and staff. "We ask them to contribute to the cleanliness of their space." Penzone said MCSO doesn't have the resources or the ability to go in and clean the inmate's space every day. The internal housekeeping staff has also prioritized cleaning of "touch spots" like door handles with levels exposure.
Penzone said deputies have seen a consistent number of calls compared to this time last year.
"We're not seeing spikes, nor are we seeing dips in the volume of calls for services," he said.
When a deputy stops a driver for a violation, deputies use a plastic bag to get items, like a driver's license and insurance information, from the driver.
"Our deputy goes back to the car and if they determine they'll issue a citation, the citation goes into the plastic bag with the license and is handed over to the driver of the vehicle," said Penzone.
He also addressed the impact of fewer drivers on the road.
"Some believe because there's less traffic, higher speeds are acceptable and they're not. We're seeing more aggressive accidents leading to injury," said Penzone.
Penzone says that inmates have been issued tablets so they can connect virtually with family, clergy members and their attorneys. The tablets give them access to books, games, TV and radio but the content is restricted. The tablets were issued before the coronavirus crisis. No taxpayer money was used to fund them.
Penzone said that his staff recognized that the most critical element in keeping everyone safe was managing the jail population. Right now, the jail population stands at about 5,400 inmates. Last year, it stood at around 7,400. In an effort to reduce the jail population, enforcement officers have been encouraged to "cite and release" some of those accused of misdemeanors (unless there was a threat to public safety.) Daily bookings have been reduced from around 225 or 300 a day to around 100 or 150.
Jails in Maricopa County want to protect inmates and workers by controlling the spread of coronavirus and are screening inmates the moment they get to facilities, looking for fevers, cough, or respiratory symptoms.
Penzone says he has suspended the work furlough and work release programs. Many of these detainees have been released to their homes for the duration of the pandemic. When the pandemic is over, they will have to return to the program and complete their sentence.
Penzone has suspended the inmate programs in which volunteers come into the jail system to provide extra-curricular programming. Those programs will resume when the crisis is over. These include drug recovery programs, faith-based programs and others that help the inmates overcome challenges and cope. Those programs will resume as soon as it is safe.
Inmates entering the jail system will be now be reviewed by a correctional health employee. If that person is symptomatic or may have been exposed to COVID-19, that person would be isolated with medical oversight.
Penzone says he has limited the amount of inmate movement between facilities so that inmates won't be moving around from place to place. "So if there is an exposure, we can isolate it," Penzone said.
Penzone outline the current numbers of those affected by COVID-19 in the County Jail system:
- 57 inmates have been tested
- Zero inmates have tested positive
- 6 inmates are under medical supervision pending results
- 15 staff members on leave (Not specific to COVID-19)
- One staffer in HQ tested positive and is recovering