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How to maintain jail operations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jails must continue to fill a vital role within the public safety and criminal justice realms while battling the coronavirus

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The Maricopa County 4th Avenue Jail location shown here Saturday, March 21, 2020, in Phoenix. Due to the coronavirus, some Arizona sheriffs are calling for the release of certain offenders from jail and urging police agencies to issue citations rather than arrest people.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Jails in our nation are starting to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s through a new arrestee, a visitor or a staff member, the coronavirus is finding its way into correctional facilities.

While compelling government interests are evolving in this situation, jail leaders and staff must maintain security and control of their facilities while adhering to the provisions of the U.S. and state constitutions, and other legal mandates.

I’m sure many jail leaders and staff members have been pondering how to prepare for, and react to, this situation in the coming days and weeks. While no one has all of the answers, several things can be done to help mitigate the risks. This article endeavors to provide a few ideas to try to stay ahead of this rapidly unfolding situation during this worldwide crisis.

A goal of any jail should be to mitigate, isolate and contain the coronavirus, in that order. This should start with ensuring you have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for your staff. Also, inmates assigned to cleaning or sanitization duties should be equipped with appropriate PPE. It may be advantageous to track and document unusual expenses related to this situation for possible reimbursement. Track all related expenses including equipment, staff overtime and supplies.


Robust and immediate screenings of every arrestee who enters into your booking/intake area can make a large difference in controlling the spread. In addition to any previous medical screening you may have been practicing, the use of a non-invasive touch, or infrared, thermometer should be incorporated into your process. This takes seconds and can help you identify potentially infected arrestees. (Bear in mind that COVID-19 symptoms may not be present until up to 14 days after exposure.) Arrestees should be asked about any travel history from known international and domestic “hot spots,” as well as other potential exposure scenarios.

Separate arrestees and current at-risk inmates from other inmates. Consider re-designating current housing assignments/units to keep new inmates separate from “established” inmates according to recommended Centers for Disease Control (CDC) isolation guidelines. Isolate symptomatic inmates from other inmates to the extent possible.

One thing to consider is the availability of COVID-19 test kits, which could be a low priority for inmates in competition with greater at-risk, or larger populations. Consider separating your elderly inmates from traditional general population inmates as it appears the elderly may be more susceptible to the coronavirus than younger people, with the potential for greater mortality rates.


In addition to inmate and arrestee screenings, consider screening your staff. By now, staff members have likely been encouraged to stay home if they are sick or otherwise exposed. Consider the following questions:

  • Will “non-essential” staff still be required to come to your facility for work?
  • Can some or any of their duties be accomplished remotely from home?
  • Do you have a staffing emergency plan in place and ready to deploy?
  • Once the threat is over, do you have a “resume normal operations” staffing plan in place?
  • Do you have contingency staffing plans with allied agencies, such as any nearby state prisons or correctional institutions?

As we in corrections know, jails have highly fluid populations while prisons have more static populations, so the risks are different in each situation.


Visitation, especially face-to-face (even with a barrier) or contact visits, could be a risky endeavor. You may want to consider, after consulting with available legal counsel, canceling inmate visitation while simultaneously increasing inmate phone time to compensate. This may be true even if video visitation is your usual visitation method.

The reality is, depending on the size of your visiting center, people will congregate and this is just one additional area of your facility or system that would require “deep cleaning.” Also, you should consider planning for the cancellation of legal and other professional visits. Chances are that most professionals are in a shutdown/social distancing mode anyway. However, that does not abdicate our responsibility to ensure that attorney-client confidentiality is maintained by those wishing to avail themselves of legal visitation. If face-to-face legal visits are not feasible, perhaps technological alternatives can be used as a substitute.


The courts in your jurisdiction are likely to be closed or, at the least, sessions will be limited or reduced in comparison to regular court operations. Trials, related hearings and other court-related functions may be suspended and/or delayed for the perceivable future, which may impact your jail population. First appearances, arraignments and other preliminary court functions should be a priority at this time. Again, consider the use of technology to keep this aspect of the system afloat. The last thing you need is an increase in your jail population given the high possibility of staffing impacts and other pressing concerns.


In advance of the possibility of an increase in jail population, consider the efficacy of reducing your inmate population now. Work with your judiciary and prosecutors to mitigate existing sentences and/or obtain approval for the release of certain categories of inmates, such as civil infractions (child support, contempt of court, failure to pay fines, etc.), misdemeanants, probation violators and, possibly, non-violent felony offenders. This is not a “get out of jail free card,” but rather a proactive means of reducing your current population in preparation for what may come.


While school systems and churches across the country are suspending activities and services, it’s obvious that jails should follow suit. There’s no need to keep your established programs in operation at this time, especially those relying on outside volunteers. You don’t need people coming in and out of your facility unless it is essential to your operation (i.e., medical staff and shift changes). Consider alternative methods to keep your inmates occupied. Look at options such as self-study workbooks, remotely based religious or educational programs, and other activities.


We’ve been besieged with images of empty store shelves for some time. How is your jail food supply? Is it adequate? Are you talking with your vendors and do you know their continuing operational plans?

At a minimum, jails should plan to maintain a two-week food supply. If this means you have to deviate from established menus, so be it. That’s not to say inmates should be fed the same thing throughout this crisis, but deviation from established procedures while adhering to applicable regulations as closely as possible should be an option.


The COVID-19 situation is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. The challenges are seemingly endless, ongoing and ever-changing, and there’s no clue as to when it may end. Jails must continue to fill a vital role within the public safety and criminal justice realms. Jail leadership and staff may be pressured on a scale like never before. As the “hidden heroes,” our profession must weather the storm against seemingly insurmountable odds. I know we are up to the task.

Mark Chamberlain served as the first chief deputy of corrections for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office in Hot Springs, Arkansas, from 2014 to 2016. Prior to his selection, Mark worked for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in West Palm Beach, Florida, for over 26 years, starting off as a corrections deputy and retiring as a captain/division commander. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Northwood University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Barry University. He is a graduate of Class #10 of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Senior Leadership Program and holds instructor certifications in Florida and Arkansas. Mark joined the Lexipol team as a training coordinator in August 2016. He currently serves as director of corrections content for Lexipol.