Chatham Co. Jail employee tests positive for COVID-19; bond cases evaluated

ByBlair CaldwellandJessica Savage|April 2, 2020 at 2:33 PM EDT - Updated April 2 at 2:33 PM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher confirmed a sheriff’s office staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. The sheriff says that person is isolated at home and doing well.

Sheriff Wilcher said the employee who tested positive for COVID-19 was at the Chatham County Jail for the last time last Thursday. He says two other employees are self-isolating now.

They followed proper protocol, but sheriff says this virus cannot stop them from serving the public.

“We had figured that sooner or later we would, and you know, we just sat back and evaluated and keep on going. You know we’ve spoken to the public health hospital; we’ve spoken to the people in Atlanta about it and they advised us what to do and how to do it and we followed that protocol,” Sheriff Wilcher said.

While the jail is still operating, sheriff says they have changed a lot to follow CDC guidelines and protect their staff and inmates.

“We have no civilians, we have no programs back there nothing that anybody from the outside can bring back there to give to the inmate other than my officers and we’re screening them very diligently every time they come into the building and every time they leave the building. So, you know, if you’re asking me what’s going on in the jail today, it’s a status quo. We’re doing what we need to do. We’re making sure the inmates are treated humanely. We’re making sure that they are given the proper stuff to wipe their hands, to make sure we told them to stay six feet apart,” Sheriff Wilcher said.

There are no cases of coronavirus in the jail, but Sheriff Wilcher says they are prepared if that were to change. They have the space and appropriate medical staff to handle it.

“We’ve just sanitized one of our units completely; that’s empty in case we do have a case of this come into the jail that we can separate them from the other population. We also have four decompression units and medical, where like if people have TB or something, that we can put them in that and we can also put people if they come down with this COVID-19 in those so we’re very ahead of the game,” Sheriff Wilcher said.

The sheriff said right now they have about 65-75 officers working in the jail. The number of inmates they are caring for is also changing because of the coronavirus. The inmate population has dropped quite a bit. Since March 2, when all of this started, through Thursday, the number of inmates has dipped to 1,396. According to jail population numbers, 350 inmates have been released over the past month.

For the past two weeks, a skeletal crew at the courthouse has worked at a rapid pace to figure out how to reduce the jail population.

"These are hard decisions because the majority of these people we've already looked at and said no, they belong in the jail. But we can't we have to look at it differently right now because of the emergency,” Judge Penny Freeseman said.

As Chief Judge of the Chatham County Superior Court, Judge Freeseman decides felony cases. And the pandemic, as she explained, has changed the usual bond criteria.

"To determine which inmates we could possible bond out,” Judge Freeseman said.

Inmates previously told they must pay a cash bond are now being considered for release on promise that they'll show up to court when their case moves forward.

Normally, there are four questions to consider for a pre-trial release of an inmate without bail.

  • Will that person fail to appear in court?
  • Are they a significant risk to the community?
  • Is there a risk that person will commit another felony?
  • Or will that person intimidate witnesses or try to obstruct justice?

Right now, risk to the community is the focus.

"For example, if guns are involved, we're probably not going to let them out,” Judge Freesemann said. "But for many people they may have committed shoplifting four times. You know, but right now we have to take a chance on that and have them considered for bond. In other words, sometime the threat or danger of, for example committing a felony, sometimes we have to look or consider the danger of committing what felony.”

Judge Freesemann said public safety is the court's paramount issue to weigh-in all of this. They're focused on keeping only the inmates they must keep.

She added that the altered bond criteria will continue as long as there is a state of emergency.

Photo: Getty Images

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