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Local Advocates Call For Reduction In Jail Population

Montgomery County Jail entrance
Leila Goldstein

On Tuesday local advocates met in front of the Montgomery County Jail to call for action to reduce the jail’s population. At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of inmates in the county jail was reduced to less than 500. Now, that number has climbed back up to nearly 700. In 2019, before the pandemic, the jail averaged around 850 inmates.

Montgomery County Public Defender Theresa Haire said judges have been inconsistent in ordering the release of inmates during the pandemic.

“There seems to be a general relaxation among law enforcement and the judiciary, just like there is in the world generally,” she said. “People are still being brought in for low level misdemeanors, nonviolent fourth degree misdemeanors, traffic offenses.”

Edwin Fuller with the Montgomery County Jail Coalition said reducing the number of people in the jail requires a team effort from local officials.

“We're calling on judges to aggressively review your cases and see who absolutely has to be in here. We're calling on law enforcement...Arrests [where] something can be done other than bringing them to the jail, to pursue that,” he said. “We're also calling on Public Health to take an aggressive role in managing what is being done in here to control the COVID situation.”

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the office reached out to local law enforcement, courts and judges in March and June to request that they prioritize alternatives to incarceration.

“The Montgomery County Jail intends to continue following guidelines and best practices specifically that entail isolating those who show signs and symptoms, testing those where it is medically indicated and completing contact tracing to properly identify and quarantine any potential exposures,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

As of September 1, one inmate was positive for COVID-19 and 11 inmates were in quarantine, according to the sheriff’s office. In total 52 inmates and 11 staff members have tested positive since March.

The jail is not conducting mass COVID-19 testing. Inmates can request to be tested and are then examined by a physician. If they are showing symptoms, they are isolated and tested based on the physician’s recommendation.

“Mass testing is best suited for facilities with static populations, versus those such as jails where there is a high turnover among those entering and exiting daily,” the office said in a statement.

Public Health had requested that the jail test everyone in the facility in June, according to email records. But the jail instead followed the recommendations of its medical provider NaphCare. A local nonprofit and an inmate filed a lawsuit against Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County in July, alleging the department had “inexcusably failed to comply with its clear statutory duty despite knowing that cases of COVID-19 are spreading at the Jail.”

The CDC released a study last month that found that symptom-based testing has likely underestimated the prevalence of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. “Broad-based testing can provide a more accurate assessment of prevalence and generate data to help control transmission,” researchers said.