Protecting, serving and keeping the community healthy
By Eileen Persike
Americans have been asked to change many habits over the past month in effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Wearing face masks is the latest recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), added to the suggestions to stay physically six feet apart, stay home as much as possible, and others. One population that has less ability to manage social distancing is inmates at prisons and jails, and the people who work in them. On March 23 the CDC issued special guidance for correctional and detention facilities, offering recommendations for enhanced cleaning and hygiene practices, screening, isolation, and infection control.
In Oneida County, Sheriff Grady Hartman said he began taking precautions March 17.
“We took some pretty decisive action early,” Hartman said. “We’re very concerned about our jail population. They tend to be a more vulnerable population…if COVID-19 gets into our jail, there is concern about their health and the health of the staff as well.”
No one except for employees who work in the jail are allowed in the jail. The Sheriff’s Office lobby was closed to the public, including to vendors, and video visitation from the front lobby vestibule was cut off. The deputies are practicing social distancing from one another, staying out of the law enforcement center as much as possible, Hartman said.
“We’re backing each other up as we need to and are trying to limit our contact with people unless it’s a necessity.”
Hartman also released low-risk offenders. “We worked with our judges and the district attorney to get rid of the ones we thought we could get of…considered a low risk for the community for violence, those types of things,” Hartman said. “We let those people loose, kicked their cases down the road to when this is over.”
The department is making an effort to keep new arrestees out of the jail. Since mid-March there have been only a handful of bookings. Instead, Hartman said they are issuing misdemeanor citations.
“People for the most part are abiding by this stay-at-home thing; we’re not getting inundated by calls for service…report to crimes and that sort of thing have slowed down,” he said, adding, “If there was someone we thought was a risk to the community, of course we would bring them into the jail.”
Rhinelander Police Chief Lloyd Gauthier closed the front entrance to the public to keep his staff healthy and able to work. The department prioritizes the calls received, he said, to weigh the need for face-to-face contact against the need to be safe.
“We try to handle what calls are coming in, over the phone,” Gauthier said. “If there is a minor vehicle accident, we’ll instruct both parties over the phone what to do. Of course, if there are injuries, we’re going to be there.”
With the high community exposure, law enforcement is a higher risk profession, Hartman said. He and Gauthier both noted the importance of keeping the public and the officers safe. This time, though, the perpetrator is invisible.
“We’re still here, we’re still present, just doing things a little differently,” Gauthier said. “Our mission is still to provide a safe environment for the community.”