More than two dozen inmates and one staff member in the Rogers County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, and jail administrators say they're working to keep the virus from spreading more widely through an inmate population of about 240.
The positive results have prompted public criticism from family members of inmates who say the jail hasn't been doing enough to prevent the spread of the disease.
The outbreak, which includes 27 inmates who have tested positive, has occurred in less than a week, Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton said in an interview Tuesday.
"On any given day, running a jail is a difficult task," Walton said. "With COVID-19, we've got our hands full. A week ago today, we could say that — as far as we know — there was nobody positive in that jail."
The first positive case was discovered when the jail was in the process of transferring inmates into Department of Corrections' custody, Walton said. Oklahoma's corrections department requires that inmates be tested before transfer, and that revealed the first positive case, Walton said.
None of the inmates or the staff member have required hospitalization, said Undersheriff Jonathan Sappington. He said the inmates who have tested positive are all in one pod of the jail.
"Our biggest concern at this point is if you get it into more than one pod," Sappington said. "If we were to have three pods essentially have active cases, it puts quite the crunch in reference to housing and capacity."
The mother of an inmate who has been in the jail since January contacted the Claremore Progress this week, expressing concerns about the jail's sanitation and how quickly new inmates are released into the jail's general population.
"They're not isolating people coming in that they're arresting," said Jenn Coolidge, whose daughter faces charges that include shooting with intent to kill and assault and battery with intent to kill. "They don't have the space for it. So, they're letting them back into general population as soon as they come in."
Another inmate expressed similar concerns to Tulsa television station KOTV.
"… They're bringing new people in and they're not quarantining them," inmate Moe Boyles was quoted by KOTV. "That makes it a problem."
Walton disputes the assertions that jail conditions are unsanitary and that new intakes weren't being quarantined.
"If somebody says that we bring a new intake in off the street and throw them into a pod with 35 or 40 people, they're an absolute liar," Walton said. "If you believe that, you're believing a lie."
Sappington said the jail has been quarantining new male inmates unless there are circumstances that don't require it. He said in some cases, the Rogers County Jail receives inmates from the Tulsa County Jail.
"If they've been at the city of Tulsa for 14 days, then whenever we get them, you've already been quarantined," Sappington said. The inmates in the Rogers County Jail, "don't always see that or know that," he said.
Sappington said housing female inmates presents a more difficult challenge and 14-day quarantines aren't always possible before they are put into the general population.
"Females we try to isolate the best we can," Sappington said. "… We have our issues as far as capacity goes, so sometimes that gets modified depending on circumstances."
Sappington said the jail has taken measures more stringent than public schools in the efforts to quarantine, noting that schools wait until a positive test or exposure to the virus has occurred.
"We are quarantining them upon intake, we are testing them upon intake," Sappington said. "I feel like we are going above the standard the schools are setting for their children."
Coolidge said her daughter expressed concern about the jail's sanitation, saying there was black mold and a lack of hand soap. Walton said the jail is being disinfected regularly to protect inmates and staff.
"I'd like for somebody that thinks they could run a jail better to demonstrate where our weak points are," he said. "We are disinfecting as much as any building — more than any building — in existence."
Coolidge said her daughter told her the jail pressured inmates into signing liability waiver forms Saturday that "would protect the jail legally from any inmate contracting or dying from COVID." Sappington said he was aware of a form that the jail's medical contractor, Turn Key Health, distributed to inmates before conducting testing last week.
The form, provided to the Progress, indicates that inmate testing was voluntary and releases Turn Key from liability in the testing process.
Sappington said any inmates who elected not to be tested would be quarantined. However, he said he believed all inmates were tested and the county is awaiting more results, which could arrive Wednesday.
Walton and Sappington said the jail inmate population is larger than it might otherwise have been for multiple reasons. COVID-19 has slowed the transfers from the county to the state's Department of Corrections. Additionally, the recent Supreme Court ruling in McGirt vs. Oklahoma affected the judicial process for Native Americans. Some cases that once were tried in the state court system now must be tried in federal court — a process that has left inmates in county jails longer.
The jail's population of about 240 likely would be in the range of 160-180 if not for those two factors, and "we'd be in a pretty good position right now," Sappington said.
The highest number of inmates the jail has held was 327 about three years ago. In the early stages of the pandemic, the jail's population was about 180, Sappington said.
Walton said he understood why relatives would be concerned about an inmate's safety, and "if there's concerns, I'm open to those."
However, he said, "So very often the inmate will find that person that certainly loves them and cares about them and fill them full of half-truths or flat-out lies. It's not the first time we've had to defend these things."