After a COVID-19 outbreak in the Yellowstone County jail, an inmate petitioned to be released over concerns of contracting the disease. One week later and still in the jail, he has tested positive for the disease, his lawyer said.
The request by inmate Jesse Jon Strack, 39, and filed by his attorney, calls for a hearing to determine whether the potential to contract the virus in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility is illegal. He is seeking release under house arrest with a GPS monitor until the petition can be heard.
The petition was filed Sept. 8, and Strack has since tested positive for the virus, his attorney Penelope Strong told The Billings Gazette on Tuesday.
Strack has hypertension, or high blood pressure, a condition that could increase the risk of severe illness for those who contract COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The petition was filed in Yellowstone County District Court against the director of the Department of Corrections, Reginald Michael, and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.
Those requests, called petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, are frequently denied for legal insufficiency. A petition made in late August by a YCDF inmate with similar health concerns was rejected.
Strack is a non-violent offender who has been charged with seven counts of fraudulently obtaining dangerous drugs since 2003. He was most recently sentenced in 2018 and has been housed in YCDF since June 18 on parole violations.
The Yellowstone County jail is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. In late August, 30 male inmates and four female inmates tested positive for the virus and were put into isolation.
Phone calls to Linder and jail commander Capt. Roger Bodine seeking updated information on the outbreak in the jail were not returned by press time.
The unit where COVID-19 inmates are being isolated is adjacent to the unit where Strack is housed. It’s unclear whether he has since been moved to quarantine, according to the petition.
The two units share a ventilation system, and staff go back and forth between them.
Based on overcrowding and a poor response to COVID-19, the jail has not enacted sufficient measures to reasonably prevent the spread of virus among Strack and other inmates, the petition alleges.
Officials at the jail acted with deliberate indifference to Strack’s health “in not taking prompt and more appropriate measures to prevent him from contracting COVID-19,” the petition reads.
Lack of mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and disinfection in the jail are among the primary complaints.
The jail isn’t routinely issuing masks to every inmate due to security concerns. The basic surgical masks contain a small metal plate that could be used as a weapon, Bodine said. The jail also sees masks as a potential security risk if a fight breaks out and staff can't identify who is involved. Bodine also cited cost as a factor behind the decision not to issue masks to every inmate.
Staff members are also not required to wear a mask during their entire shift, but are required to wear a mask while patting down an inmate or entering a unit where people have tested positive for COVID-19.
The building isn’t subject to the statewide mask order because it isn't open to the public, Bodine said. The petition argues that, while the building is not technically a public space, large groups of inmates regularly congregate and that the order should apply to those groups.
Sanitizer pumps are located at the entrances of each unit, and inmates are supposed to use them upon exit and entrance. Inmates can request alcohol-based hand wipes. Sanitizer is not more widely distributed over concerns that people might drink it.
The jail has purchased electrostatic sprayers for regular disinfecting. To clean cells, the jail bought a machine that has a hose that can spray down surfaces with cleaning solution and vacuum up the dirty liquid.
New inmates are held in intake for 72 hours before being moved to general population. Bodine said while at the start of the pandemic that the jail was holding new inmates for a full two weeks, it had to shorten the time span due to crowding. There is one men’s and one women’s unit to quarantine anyone known to have or suspected of having COVID-19.
Inmates showing any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 are tested. Known contacts of those who test positive are not automatically tested but have been in some cases. Jail staff rely on guidance from Correctional Health Partners, the county’s 24/7 on-site private medical provider, in determining when to test an inmate.
“Strack questions whether all such measures can, and are being utilized currently and that they will be effective to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” according to the petition.
Strack was slated to be transferred to the state prison, although transfers have halted. Even if he is transferred, there can be no guarantee that Strack will be housed in suitable conditions at the state prison to ensure he does not contract COVID-19, he alleges.
In late August the Department of Corrections suspended transfers of state inmates held in Yellowstone County, citing the increase of COVID-19 cases there.
A spike in local crime and domestic violence coupled with halted transfers of state inmates have exacerbated an overcrowding issue in the jail, officials said.
At least one other Yellowstone County inmate has petitioned for release since the beginning of the pandemic.
Eugene Linwood asked to be released with a GPS monitor in late August, worried that COVID-19 coupled with his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pre-diabetes could turn fatal. His request was rejected.
A Missoula County man made a similar request to that county jail, which was also rejected in a Montana Supreme Court order which argued that the request was speculative as he had not acquired the disease.
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