In the already overcrowded Spokane County Jail, correctional officers are bracing for COVID-19 to strike

Last week, officials met with inmates in the Spokane County Jail to discuss protocols in the event of the worst-case scenario: a COVID-19 outbreak within the already overcrowded facility. Inmates could be locked down in their cells for an extended period of time, officials said.

In response, inmates asked if cleaning supplies could be more readily available on the floors, says Tyler Olson, a 37-year-old correctional officer who has worked at the jail for 15 years.

"The prevailing concern to them was, 'Can we clean more? Can we be more proactive?'" he says.

It was indicative of the tense atmosphere within the facility, where both inmates and staff are on edge due to the pandemic roiling the outside world.

"Everyone is super aware of what they're exposing themselves to. Everyone wants to be as safe as they can be, given the job that we have to do. That goes for staff and inmates," Olson says.

While the facility has adopted some measures to prevent an outbreak, such as screening new inmates and staff entering the jail for symptoms, the threat isn't assuaged. There's a limited supply of protective equipment and cells where symptomatic inmates can be quarantined, and both staff and inmates regularly cycle in and out of the facility.

Besides, correctional facilities, by design, force people to be in close quarters.

"The practice of social distancing is almost impossible to do because obviously we have to search everyone who comes into jail, so the staff is literally touching everyone who comes in here," Olson says. "We let 46 inmates out at a time and they're not in a big enough area where you can have a six foot [distance]. That's just kind of the nature of the beast."

He sees reports of COVID-19 cases in other detention facilities across the country and fears that it's only a matter of time before Spokane County has to grapple with a similar scenario.

"The chances of COVID-19 coming into this building are pretty good, just because of the traffic that we have," he adds. "Our officers are putting ourselves at risk of contracting a virus just by doing an intake on a person."

Correctional officers are afraid to come to work. Some joke about riding out the pandemic at home by using accumulated sick time, Olson says. But it's never serious. There's an "all hands on deck" mentality.

"When the going gets rough, we keep going," he says. "We're doing the best we can with what we have available to us."

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.