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Missoula jail closes in-person visits, reports 14 COVID-19 cases

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The Missoula County Detention Facility has 14 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 and is closed again to all in-person visitations to limit the spread of the virus.

The 14 individuals who have tested positive are in quarantine, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jeannette Smith said in an email to the Missoulian.

There are 300 people housed at the jail, which is overpopulated. The detention facility can hold up to 224 adults., according to its website. 

The number of active COVID-19 cases at the jail is variable, Smith said. She would not describe recent numbers as an uptick.

Inmates are wearing masks. Staffers are not required to mask, but most do, she added. It is highly recommended for anyone entering the facility, such as attorneys or law enforcement, to also mask up. 

The jail operates on a pod-based system where inmates are contained within a small group, Smith said. Pods include a set number of cells and a single living space. Within the jail, pods vary in numbers and are determined by location, and people within these close-knit groups have very limited contact with other pods in the facility.

This configuration was in place pre-pandemic, but keeps inmates in small groupings, which can help limit the spread of the virus. 

“The Missoula County Detention Facility stringently adheres to CDC guidelines for the health and safety of the public, staff and other inmates,” Smith said. “Safety measures to limit the spread include additional cleaning and sanitation, facility-wide testing, pre-screening, and isolation and testing if indicated by the screening process.”

The jail had re-opened June 1 on a limited basis to the public. Since then, Missoula County has seen a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office announced the closure of in-person visitations on Tuesday in a Facebook post.

“Due to the health and safety of our inmates, staff, and the public, the Missoula County Detention Facility is currently closed to in-person public visitation/access,” the post said.

Offsite video visitation can be scheduled online at icsolutions.com.

Jacob Coolidge, a Missoula County public defender, said he used to spend several hours a week at the jail working with his clients, but in the last couple of weeks has refrained from doing so because of virus concerns.

Coolidge has sensed recently that COVID-19 has been back in the jail, he said. Incarcerated individuals have had to call in to court hearings from quarantine in the jail, something he has noticed more regularly in recent months.

The jail has been diligent about keeping people safe and quarantined, Coolidge said, but he imagines it’s been difficult for staff with the high number of people housed at the detention facility paired with the shortage of jail staff.

“The logistical challenges the jail is going through right now must be so difficult,” Coolidge said, pointing specifically to making sure people who have tested positive and/or are experiencing symptoms are safely quarantined.

The detention facility is working closely with the Missoula City-County Health Department to consistently evaluate additional measures if needed to ensure the safety of inmates, staff and the public at the jail, Smith said.

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