Key Takeaways

-- Many measures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic are still in place. Sheriffs’ offices are still working to limit their jail populations, quarantining incoming inmates, facilitating video conferencing for inmates with their attorneys and court appearances, using PPE, and regularly disinfecting.

-- Testing will be key to limiting the spread. Agencies are looking at new testing options that will allow them to conduct more tests and receive results faster. 

-- Agencies are planning for pandemic protective measures to be in place for a while.  Harris County is preparing for the possibility of another wave of cases in October, and Pinellas County officials expect that their measures may be in place through the end of next year. And officials expect that some COVID-related changes will continue after the pandemic abates.

Pinellas County, FL Sheriff Bob Gualtieri:

Our Careful Approach Has Kept Infections, and Crime, Down

When COVID started in February, we immediately took steps to lock down the jail. We cancelled all visitations, and set up quarantine pods on 14-day cycles, so every new inmate went into a 14-day quarantine before going into the general population. We were very fortunate, because those measures were effective until June.

In June, we were hit. It probably came in through staff. We saw a pretty big surge of infections. I would’ve liked to test more than I did, but there was a lack of testing capabilities. We have around 60 inmates who have tested positive. One had severe underlying health conditions and passed away in the hospital.

Today we have 13 inmates in the jail who are positive. We’re following strict contact-tracing guidelines. When we have someone in a particular housing unit who tests positive, we immediately lock down that housing unit for 14 days. Ratcheting it down further is how we reduced it when it hit in June. It was effective. We got it under control immediately.

The measures we’ve put in place are a continuation of what we’ve started, but even more stringent. We require all the staff to wear masks. We require social distancing and try to keep people apart as best we can. Unless you’re an employee, you don’t come into the jail.  Attorney visits are all done remotely. And no inmates are going to the courthouse, because it’s all done via video.

And we’re really trying to keep people from getting booked in. We were booking around 40,000 per year, but now we’re booking around 70 people per day [a 36-percent reduction].  Our population was around 3,100-3,200 inmates, and we cut that by about 1,000 to 2,200.

A big challenge is getting our inmates transferred to the state Department of Corrections. They shut it down and weren’t taking people, which was a problem.

I think these measures will be in place long-term, maybe through the end of next year. Eventually, when there’s a vaccine or this settles down, we’ll relax measures like keeping professional visitors out, making people wear masks, and distancing. But we’re not going to relax those measures any time in the near future.

We asked law enforcement agencies in the county to use alternatives to arrest, notices to appear, and our pre-arrest diversion program to keep the bookings down and keep people out.

Chuck Wexler: How has your testing protocol changed since COVID first hit?

Sheriff Gualtieri: We spent $50,000 on one of the Abbott rapid tests. We have the machine, and we’re waiting on the test kits. That’s going to be a game-changer for us, because we’re going to do a rapid test on everyone who is booked in. The confidence level of the rapid test for a positive result is 95%. If you test someone, you get the result back in about 20 minutes. If they’re positive, you have 95% confidence in that result.

The rapid test has questionable confidence if you have a negative result, and it needs to be confirmed. But if you test negative and don’t have any symptoms, I’m not worried about you.

It’s going to help us manage our jail population, because right now we have people doing an initial a 14-day quarantine. If they get a negative result, we’ll feel a little better about it. If they come in and they’re positive, we’ll be able to put them in respiratory isolation and not in those initial 14-day pods.

So testing is crucial, but we’ve had limited testing available. Hopefully they will get us the testing kits by mid-September.

If we have success using this with the inmates, we may start using it with the staff. As long as the kits are available, I could see us using the rapid test on the staff.

Wexler: Have you seen any change in crime as you’ve reduced your jail population?

Sheriff Gualtieri:  The evidence is that it is not having an adverse impact. We’re not seeing an uptick in crime. I’d say we’re basically status quo, and maybe down a little bit. Maybe some of the reason we’re down is that the bad guys haven’t been going out during this and doing the burglaries and other crime. We haven’t seen an increase in violent crime or property crime.

As opposed to some who did mass releases, we worked with our state attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, private defense lawyers, and the judges. The judges held hearings so that we could do this on a case-by-case basis. I think doing it that way, where they were evaluating each case and making reasoned decisions, is one of the reasons we’ve had the success we’ve had.

Wexler:  How has the pandemic impacted your Safe Harbor program?

Sheriff Gualtieri:  We were averaging 400 people a day at Safe Harbor, which is our diversion program for persons experiencing homelessness. Now we’re down to about 110. It’s a challenging population, and they often want to do their own thing.

Safe Harbor is safe, but it’s not secure, meaning people can come and go. But we had to tell people that if they came, they needed to stay, because it’s not safe to have people going in and out repeatedly. The homeless population doesn’t want to do that, so unfortunately our population is down. That’s not a good result of this, but if we don’t have those safety measures in place, we may end up with mass infection. 

Harris County ,TX Sheriff Ed Gonzalez:

We Have a Good Medical Team On-Site

We’ve fared pretty well, considering how large our system is. Our current jail population is around 8,400 individuals, and we have more than 2,000 employees working in our jail complex. Early on I tried to educate our community about the jail churn and the many people who come in and out of our system daily, including contractors, detention officers, and inmates.

As much as we’ve tried to reduce bookings, we have so many jurisdictions within our 1,700 square miles that some will still be booking people. All in all, we’ve had success lowering our population, but it’s gotten a little high again.

We’ve had two waves of infections. During our initial one, when things were first taking off, we did pretty well. The second wave, around June, was when we did start feeling the impacts. Now we’re stabilizing again.

Since we started testing in late February or early March, we’ve had 2,064 positive cases. Currently we have 814 positive and two who are hospitalized with non-severe symptoms. We tested about 95% of our defendants who are in custody. We tested about 92% of our personnel.

When inmates are released, we work on a reentry plan with those who have tested positive, to make sure they and their families know that they’ve tested positive, recovered, and may have antibodies. Prior to release, we create a discharge plan to provide a “warm handoff,” either connecting them with family or, if they’re homeless, working with the city to get them to a supervised location, such as a motel.

We have a medical team on-site. Our team did exceptionally well during that first phase. When we hit that second surge, I developed an infectious disease response team responsible for slowing and stopping the spread. They look at policies, procedures, and training. They’re also now preparing for flu season. I’ve heard that there may be another surge of COVID in October, so we’re not taking any chances and are going to prepare for that. We’re going to make sure we get all our personnel the flu vaccine, and are arranging for a medical team to provide it on-site.

We also have a 14-day quarantine for new bookings before they go to the new housing section.

We had to change to 12-hour shifts. That’s been taxing on our folks, because it makes for long days. But we had to make sure we stabilized our workforce. Our folks are showing up to work. I think they value that we’re taking precautions.

Last week we were in the crosshairs of Hurricane Laura, which had the potential to come through our jurisdiction. Fortunately, we missed the brunt of it, but we had to make plans for that as well.

Wexler:  Have you made efforts to reduce your jail population?

Sheriff Gonzalez: Yes, we worked with our jail population manager to screen potential candidates for release. We look at age, underlying medical conditions, the type of offense, criminal history. We try to screen as best we can, then work with the judges who make those decisions.

It really helps when there’s a warm handoff, and they know that we can connect them to a program in the community or medically-assisted treatment to help with their reentry. That gives us a little more comfort in making some of those decisions.

Some of those programs have been limited due to COVID, but we try to take a holistic approach and keep those programs going as much as we can. 

Essex County, MA Special Sheriff William Gerke:

We Provided Inmates with Tablets, So They Can Communicate with the Outside World

Massachusetts and the rest of the Northeast were hit early, and we experienced our surge in March, April, and May. By July we began to roll out of our lockdown, after being locked down completely for about eight weeks. It’s been a soft reopening. We’ve resumed non-contact in-person visits, by appointment only. We schedule them to make sure we have adequate distancing between visitors. And we have all the usual COVID safety precautions in place for the safety of staff, inmates, and visitors.

During the lockdown we were apprehensive about what the demeanor of the inmates might be in such a restrictive environment. We’ve provided all 900 inmates with tablets, which allows them to communicate with the outside world. It greatly increases the number of phone calls they can make. They can use the tablet to maintain contact with their loved ones, friends, and attorneys.

More defense attorneys are coming on-site now for visits with their clients. We give them the option to do it in a contact situation, separated by plexiglass, or non-contact.

COVID has enhanced our communication with our partners, including the courts, probation, parole, and the defense bar. We talk things out before they become problems. The courts have always been apprehensive about the use of video conferencing. Judges didn’t like it and wanted to see the defendants in front of them. But now they’d prefer that the defendants stay in jail, so we have greatly enhanced the use of video conferencing. Fortunately, we had the facilities for it. A lot of transportation and in-person interaction has been avoided through the use of video conferencing for court appearances.

Wexler:  Will you maintain some changes after the pandemic?

Special Sheriff Gerke: Without a doubt. We’ve learned so much from this. We’ve learned how to better work with our medical and mental health staff. One of our big successes was early activation of our Incident Command System. ICS has guided us through this and is still maintained today. For example, the logistics portion of ICS has helped us maintain our PPE and cleaning supplies.

I believe some of our cleaning efforts will be maintained. We had to reintroduce bleach and alcohol, which previously had been avoided in corrections. We’ll have to see if that’s maintained. We’re using electrostatic sprayers for surfaces in rooms, vans, and common areas. We also bought a higher-level sprayer that uses ionized hydrogen peroxide, which is the same substance they use in hospital operating rooms.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.