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Jail adjusted well to COVID guidelines

Lehigh County Commissioners last week (13 January) extended the state of emergency declaration until April 16, 2021. It has been in effect since March 16, 2020.

Commissioners made it clear that the COVID-19 related emergency declaration was essentially a legal status that allows Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong to allocate resources in connection with the fighting the pandemic. It does not modify any COVID-19 measures put in place by Governor Tom Wolf.

Lehigh County Jail Director of Corrections Janine Donate recounted to commissioners the history of her actions at the jail and its current state of COVID-related affairs.

She said that as of Jan. 13, there are 714 inmates at the jail in Allentown, however she pointed out that 109 of these are being held at the request of other counties or agencies.

(One of these is Robert Sanford, a retired Chester Fire Department fireman who was arraigned in federal court in Allentown. He is in the Lehigh County Jail held on charges that include assault of a police officer, disorderly conduct on the U.S. Capitol grounds, civil disorder and of unlawfully entering the Capitol.)

According to Donate, early in March and April one hundred twenty-seven to 130 inmates were released bringing the population of inmates down to 500 or a little less than 50 percent of the capacity at the jail and 15 percent of the capacity of the Community Corrections Center to about 15 percent of its capacity. The Community Corrections Center is on Riverside Drive in Bethlehem and the Lehigh County Jail are both supervised by Donate.

“We instituted a mask policy back in April for inmates and all staff members, said Donate.

“This is a very fluid situation. We are making daily, sometimes, hourly adjustments in our procedures to react to the ever-changing world of the virus.”

“We are reviewing and providing lists of inmates to the [District Attorney] that might be eligible for release,” said Donate.

According to Lehigh County’s website, the county jail was opened in 1992.

“The Jail,” according to the site, “is a state-of-the-art, 250,000 square foot, direct supervision high rise facility with a capacity of 1,352 inmates. Corrections officers work inside the housing units where they have direct contact and interactions with inmates. The maximum-security facility houses inmates who are pre-trial detainees as well as those serving local terms of sentence.”

According to Donate, there has been a spike in positive COVID cases since Thanksgiving which she attributed to the spike in the civil population seen over the holidays.

“We certainly saw an uptick in our staff members … that were testing positive [for COVID-19].”

Since visitors are not allowed in the facility, the spike in positive cases can likely be attributed to the staff.

Donate said that the rise in positive rates at the jail “was not a sudden rise, it was not a two-week rise.”

“It was a slow and steady rise through the summer months and into the fall,” said Director Donate.

“As we did our contact tracing in our facility (jail), we … identified a trend where those officers who were working on their housing posts, the inmate population became symptomatic or were tested positive (for Covid-19).”

“We received the Abbott rapid antigen test Dec. 4. If we had not started testing Dec. 7, those cases would not have been identified.”

According to Abbott’s website, “Abbott’s rapid antigen test is a reliable and affordable tool for detecting active COVID-19 infections at a massive scale. The test is highly portable, easy to use, cost effective, requires no instrumentation and provides results in 15 minutes.”

After testing said Donate positive inmates were move to separate housing units within the jail, but it took hours [to move inmates].

“This led to the misconception that we were housing positive-tested inmates with negative-tested inmates,” said Donate. “A positive inmate is never held in the same cell as a negative inmate.”

She said that now the Abbott test is being given to all new inmates when they are checked in. All those inmates who tested negative are, after 14 days, being tested again and them after 14 more days, tested again.

She some confusion also stems from the fact that once an inmate has tested positive, if that person medically recovers and then tests negative, he or she can return to the areas where positive inmates are housed.

Donate had previously reported that a 54-year-old inmate died of COVID-19 on Dec. 31while in a local hospital. This was the first COVID-19 death reported among prisoners in the Lehigh Valley.

“I want to thank my staff. These have been trying times. The last 30 to 45 days have been especially difficult. They have been resilient. The strength they have shown for the past month and a half has been commendable.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Percy Dougherty, Donate reported that she has good stock of personal protective supplies. “We are in pretty good shape.”

Commissioner Dave Harrington asked about masks at the jail.

Donate said the Pennsylvania Correctional Industries provide cloth masks that tie behind the head and that each inmate is issued two of them.

A resident who called into the Zoom meeting complained that inmates were only getting one mask. She also complained that inmates were locked up 23 and a half hours a day. She said inmates have to choose between taking a shower and calling their family.

Harrington asked if Donate knew when vaccines would be available to inmates.

“I don’t have that information yet,” said Donate.

According to an inmate who didn’t want to be identified, but who was in the jail at the beginning of the pandemic shared some experiences of his stay in the County Jail. He was released in March 2020. He remembered that the visitors ban at the beginning of the pandemic, in his opinion, was “really hard on the inmates” for whom visitors are one of their few links with normalcy.

He questioned whether canceling visitors was effective toward controlling the virus.

He said visitors never had any direct contact with inmates because they were always separated by glass, but that guards or staff were in close contact with inmates on a regular basis.

According to the former inmate, COVID abatement procedures required inmates to wash their hands, but the same bar of anti-bacterial soap was used by more than one inmate.

Donate on Wed. told Commissioners that a mask policy had been implemented in April.

Regardless, the former inmate reported, based on his personal experience, that, “Lehigh County Jail is definitely one of the better jails in Pennsylvania.”

Press photos by Douglas Graves Lehigh County Jail Director of Corrections Janine Donate said, “I want to thank my staff. These have been trying times. The last 30 to 45 days have been especially difficult. They have been resilient. The strength they have shown for the past month and a half has been commendable.”
Commissioner Dave Harrington asked if Director of Corrections Donate knew when vaccines would be available to inmates. “I don't have that information yet,” said Donate.