A concrete and metal room. A bunk bed with a padded mat and no mattress cover. A toilet and sink combination unit with inconsistently warm water.
And a staff that doesn’t wear masks.
These are the alleged conditions of the Monroe County Jail, both visitors and former inmates have said.
People learned about the jail conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic through a Facebook petition created by Alicia Suarez, an associate professor of sociology at DePauw University, who lives in Bloomington. Suarez started her petition Sept. 5 to raise awareness of the jail’s public health conditions.
“This is not something specific to Monroe County,” Suarez said. “People who are incarcerated in jails and prisons are at the highest risk of getting COVID.”
Jail commander Sam Crowe said there have been no inmate cases of COVID-19, and no one has shown symptoms. However, none of the inmates have been tested for COVID-19.
Suarez said she believes the probability that none of the inmates have had the virus is highly unlikely.
“From a public health perspective, you can’t really make the claim that no one has had it unless you’ve been doing actual testing,” Suarez said.
Suarez received a message Sept. 3 from her recently incarcerated friend Laura Hamel, who described her experience in the jail during the pandemic.
Hamel turned herself into the jail July 21 after missing an appointment with her probation officer, which led to a warrant being put out for her arrest and her spending 41 days in jail.
When she was booked, Hamel said officers checked her temperature before placing her in a quarantine cell with a bunkmate. She stayed in the quarantine block for 10 days, where she said she was given disposable face masks and a small bar of soap, like one from a hotel room.
The soap was part of the on-arrival hygiene packages all inmates receive, Hamel said. The package also had two single-use shampoo and body wash packets, a travel-sized deodorant and toothpaste and a toothbrush that's about 3 inches long. She said if an inmate wanted regular-sized products, they would have to order them from the commissary.
Once the 10 days passed, Hamel said her temperature was checked again before being moved into the women’s population block. She said they were only given a mop bucket and sanitizer fluid during the 10 minutes a day they were allowed to leave their cells.
“They didn’t give us anything to wipe with, so I would usually just stock up on maxi pads,” Hamel said.
Hamel’s largest concern, however, was the staff — guards and nurses — didn’t wear masks. She said they all had neck gaiters, but most of them didn’t wear them over their mouths or noses.
“I did ask one guard, ‘Do you have a mask?’ and he pointed to it on his belt loop,” Hamel said. “Then he said, ‘We don’t have to wear them, we just have to have them on our person.’”
Another guard used her neck gaiter as a scrunchie in her hair, Hamel said. She said the guards did make an effort to wear their masks in the courtroom and in front of the judges.
Hamel said the three nurses she interacted with never wore their masks when she got her twice-daily medication for her mental health. When given medication, inmates have to open their mouths so the nurses can check and see they’ve swallowed their pills.
The inmates were only required to wear their face masks when they went into a courtroom, Hamel said. However, she said she thinks this makes sense since the inmates have to go through a quarantine block before entering a communal living area.
When Hamel’s sentence finished, she said no one checked her temperature or if she had symptoms before she left.
Crowe said while they do check for a temperature and symptoms when inmates first enter the jail, if officers aren’t prompted to, they won’t check again before letting an inmate leave.
“When they get released, if they don’t say anything, have signs, symptoms, any complaints, we have no reason to check at that time,” Crowe said.
Crowe said when a new inmate enters the jail, officers ask a list of questions to check if the inmate has any COVID-19 symptoms. Their temperature is then taken and they go to the quarantine block for up to 14 days, where if they experience any symptoms they can have the medical staff check on them.
Crowe also said cleaning supplies are provided at least once a day to every cell block.
“We are going through each cell block and counting area and sanitizing all the heavy hand-traffic areas like the door handles, phones, tabletops, handrails at least three times a day,” Crowe said.
However, products such as hand sanitizer can’t be used in jail since it’s alcohol-based, and some inmates have tried to drink it or ingest it, Crowe said.
He also said workers were given masks but aren’t required to wear them all the time.
“Most of the staff that I’ve seen, whenever they’re in contact with inmates or they can’t socially distance themselves, they have been wearing masks,” Crowe said.
He said the medical staff places a cart between them and the inmate while checking if they’ve swallowed their pills, and since the medical staff is socially distanced, they probably don’t wear masks.
During the Monroe County Board of Commissioners meeting Sept. 9 on Zoom, Crowe addressed these concerns and also said the jail received a grant to purchase an ionization system to help filter the air, as well as four UVC lighting systems to help disinfect.
While Crowe was speaking, however, Hamel listened and took notes of the things she said were wrong.
“He possibly doesn’t realize that his rules are not being enforced, but they were not being enforced during the time I was there,” Hamel said.
Suarez wasn’t told Crowe would be speaking after sending her petition to Sheriff Brad Swain and the members of the county council the day before because no one responded to her emails.
“There doesn’t seem to be interest in any more response to what concerned community members are expressing and the stories we’re hearing,” Suarez said.
The petition has 386 signatures as of Wednesday, and Suarez said the effort to raise awareness isn’t going to end here.
“There definitely are people in the community who are interested, who want to see changes happen,” Suarez said.
She and other advocates have asked to only incarcerate serious offenders and to allow those considered low-risk to move to home confinement, to know what the contact tracing program is like with the staff and to see every new inmate be tested for COVID-19. In April, the jail did release some inmates to lower the population.
“I think that would be really good for Monroe County health, especially since our rates are worse than they’ve ever been,” Suarez said.
As for Hamel, she said she wanted to speak up and share her experience since it felt wrong leaving what she knew to herself, and that the health of inmates matters and affects those both inside and outside the jail.
“The community as a whole needed to know that this is a public health matter,” Hamel said. “This is not a conspiracy or a hoax. People need to be cared for properly.”