GREAT FALLS — As jails and prisons across the country weigh the possibility of releasing some inmates in an attempt to “flatten the curve” and fight the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), Cascade County does not appear to be close to following that movement.
Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath recently asked judges across the state to release non-violent and other jail inmates to reduce crowding and protect against the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The letter is addressed to all "Montana Courts of Limited Jurisdiction Judges." McGrath wrote "...we ask that you review your jail rosters and release, without bond, as many prisoners as you are able, especially those being held for non-violent offenses."
The idea is that by releasing some low-level offenders who are not a high risk to the community, jails and prisons could reduce the amount of people that they have grouped together in one space. While it would be impossible to get down to the CDC’s recommendation of less than 10 people in a space together, the math makes sense. Less people in an area decreases the potentially exponential spread of COVID-19 in that area.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said, “My concern is this: we already have all those things in place with pre-trial. We’ve already taken the leap of faith to have a system which basically designates the level risk that each offender is inside of our pre-trial facility, and then takes that level risk and then already releases them on their own recognizance, so if that’s already been done, and all those low-level offenders who we’ve determined are safe to be in the community have already been released, now who are we releasing? That’s my question.”
Currently, there are several ways in which officials could request that select inmates be released. A recent directive from Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath asked judges to review their jail rosters for inmates that could potentially be released to flatten the curve. Sheriff Slaughter says that he could also ask for people to be released, but he’s chosen not to at this time.
“You’re likely releasing people who are going to go out into the community, who likely have lost their job and their housing due to their prior arrest,” explained Slaughter. “Now, they’re going to go out into the community, and they likely could be desperate because things are not as they were when they went into jail. For example, some of our food is short, some of our toilet paper, different things, and they may need to be able to survive, so let’s say they steal. Well, they’re going to get arrested and brought back into the jail. Now, likely, there’s a likelihood that they were exposed to the virus, and now they contaminate the entire facility with the virus, where otherwise, had they stayed in jail, they wouldn’t have done. I see where people would think that releasing people would be a good idea. I could see where they think that, but it doesn’t matter, there’s risks both ways.”
Releasing inmates isn’t the only way that jails and prisons can fight the spread of Coronavirus, just one potential way. The Cascade County Detention Center has put several new procedures in place to screen people that come into the facility. That includes both inmates and staff, because the risk of spreading the virus is equally as dangerous for both groups, especially as they share a building.
Sheriff Slaughter said that he understands that this is a tough time for everybody, but that there is no one right answer. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it seems as though we are not all that close to seeing additional inmates being released in Cascade County in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus. The again, every day is a new adventure these days, and this decision could become fluid if necessary,
As of Tuesday evening (March 24), there are 51 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Montana, with 19 of them reported in Gallatin County.
The number is an increase of five from Tuesday morning. The new cases are: three in Gallatin County; one in Yellowstone County; one in Jefferson County.
Governor Steve Bullock hosted a news conference on Tuesday afternoon to give an update on Montana's efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. Bullock said that his school closure order, which was set to expire Friday, will be extended to April 10. His order to close all non-essential businesses, including bars, casinos, and gyms, was also extended to April 10. Restaurants remain prohibited from allowing people to eat in their dining rooms, but can continue to provide take-out, curb-side, and delivery service (see here). Bullock also banned all gatherings outside of private residences of 10 people or more. Click here to read more.
Here is the total by county: Gallatin 19; Yellowstone 8; Missoula 6; Flathead 4; Cascade 3; Lewis & Clark 3; Butte-Silver Bow 3; Madison 1; Ravalli 1; Broadwater 1; Roosevelt 1; Jefferson 1.
There have not been any deaths in Montana attributed to COVID-19 at this point. Officials in Montana are keeping a list of confirmed cases in the Treasure State on an updated map and website - click here to visit the site.
A spokesman for the Montana COVID-19 Task Force says that positive test results for Montana residents who are currently outside the state will not be included in the totals reported on the website, and said: "The state recognizes that its reporting totals will differ from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) total as a result of these reporting processes." Experts still believe the true number of people infected with COVID-19 remains much higher than the number of confirmed cases.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the DPHHS public health lab in Helena has completed 2,001 tests for COVID-19.