Elkhart County Jail

As of April 8, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the Elkhart County Jail.

ELKHART — The Elkhart County Jail has operated in an almost siege-like state for about the past month with procedures aimed at preventing COVID-19 infections from spreading to inmates and staff.

Sheriff Jeff Siegel has said no cases from the coronavirus have reached the correctional complex along C.R. 26 so far.

He also had not approved early releases for inmates as a result of the pandemic last week, saying he would only do so with a judge’s order. The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued a new order that includes a provision tasking courts to work with sheriffs, attorneys and others to consider cases where non-violent inmates held in minor crimes could be eligible for release from jails with modified sentences. The decision is aimed at reducing clustered populations in order to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19.

Courts looking into possible release of certain inmates amid COVID crisis

The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office took several preventative steps last month when the crisis reached Indiana’s doorstep. Siegel said procedural changes included limiting the intake of new inmates to necessary cases, housing them separately from the rest of the jail population, conducting health screenings and closing the jail lobby to the public. Attorneys also have limited access to their clients.

Patrol officers have also had to act a little more cautiously and a little more judiciously in their responses to calls and incidents.

“My biggest concern right now is keeping the officers, the staff and the inmates healthy,” Siegel said. “Enforcing the law is a goal, but again, we have to change how we do business. Do we want a patrol officer out stopping a hundred cars a month when the realities are they could come into contact with someone who has COVID? Then, we would get into the situation of, ‘OK, I lose an officer, I’m going to lose him for 14 days.’ But I would also potentially lose other officers that that officer would come into contact with. It wouldn’t take long until my manpower is decimated by this.”

FEWER ARRESTS

The sheriff’s office has worked with the other police agencies in the county to hold back on bringing new alleged offenders into the jail, reserving such bookings for necessary cases like those involving violent crimes or public safety issues, Siegel said. In cases not considered necessary, he’s advocated for having more charges requested through the prosecutor’s office where summonses could be sent to defendants rather than having them arrested on warrants.

The adjustment has been noticeable.

“The other agencies have been phenomenal in helping us cut down on the number of intakes,” Siegel said. “The implementation of incarcerating those that really need it has been helpful in being able to manage the inside of the jail with new intakes.”

The numbers of arrests and jail bookings by county, Goshen and Elkhart police apparently began declining in March after Gov. Eric Holcomb began issuing emergency orders amid the first positively identified cases of COVID-19 in the state.

A total of 495 inmates were booked into the jail through March, compared to 597 bookings in February, figures from the sheriff’s office show. Siegel estimated the jail population was around 740 inmates at the beginning of April, and the facility had a daily average of about 811 inmates last month.

“Our officers are really being very conservative, which I certainly understand,” Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker said. “It’s what we have to do in times like these now.”

While saying arrest numbers are down, Becker stressed local police and first responders are still taking action on emergency calls and acute public safety matters, such as violent crimes or drinking and driving.

And the declines might not be solely attributed to adjustments to police tactics. Goshen police spokeswoman Tina Kingsbury speculated a couple weeks ago that with fewer people on the streets, fewer crimes are being committed.

“Either everyone being home is preventing would-be offenders from committing offenses, or the would-be offenders are staying away from others for fear of catching the virus themselves,” Kingsbury said in an email, stressing she could only speculate on why arrests were down.

NEW PROCEDURES

Those suspects who are arrested and taken to jail face layers of security during the intake process, Siegel said. They start with health screenings for fever or symptoms related to COVID-19 outside the facility. He pointed out the test for the illness is not performed during the screen.

“What we’re doing is our contracted medical provider is screening intakes in the garage area before they even step foot into the facility,” Siegel said.

Once inside, new inmates are given a face mask to wear and are kept in custody in either the jail’s booking area or the medical wing. They’re kept separated from the general population in case they become symptomatic after they’re booked, he said.

Space apparently hasn’t been an issue since arrests are down.

“Because of the great reduction in the number of intakes, we have bed space in booking and in medical that allows us to keep the fewer amount of intakes separate easier versus when we’re making more arrests and the numbers are more significant,” Siegel said.

Inmates who serve as kitchen staff have also had their routines adjusted to help avoid possible cross-contamination.

Siegel said the food service schedule was changed by about a half an hour in order to maintain one group of workers in charge of food preparation. The staff, housed prior to the outbreak, work a longer shift and remain housed together.

“They’re, in essence, kept separate from everyone else in the facility. So, that way, our food workers are not out exposed to new intakes, therefore helping them stay healthy,” Siegel said.

Among the sanitization efforts, jail staff undergo health screenings before they enter the facility and, like inmates, they’re checked for fever or COVID-19 symptoms. Similar screens are done for attorneys, bond agents and other criminal justice professionals.

“Right now, our jail may be the safest place for anybody,” Becker said. “Fortunately, our jail is not overcrowded.”

She pointed out some inmates have a reduced risk of being exposed to unhygienic conditions while incarcerated than they would as part of their routines outside.

The jail lobby was closed to the public in mid-March, and ministries and educational programs were halted.

The county’s chief public defender Peter Todd said Thursday the office’s attorneys meet with clients at the jail by video and phone conferencing systems that aren’t monitored or recorded.

REDUCING EXPOSURE

As another health precaution, local police stopped taking reports for non-violent or non-emergency crimes face-to-face. They moved to phone calls or online tools.

Siegel said the sheriff’s office has had a crime-reporting portal on its website for years.

“Someone smashes your mailbox, you don’t know who did it, use the web report,” Siegel said as an example.

Goshen police in March said officers and investigators will rely on phone calls to take reports or make follow-ups in situations like property crimes where suspects aren’t identified. The move helps reduce exposure for officers and residents, police said.

The prosecutor’s office also sought to limit exposure by moving applications for protective orders or child support online at the office’s site.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

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