Inmates at the Monroe County Jail spend most of their time locked in their cells.
Newly booked people who don’t post bail or are released by a judge will spend five days in isolation cells, a COVID-19 precaution the local jail hasn’t lifted, though some others in the area have.
People held in minimum and medium security cellblocks spend four hours out of every 24 hours in the holding area outside of their two-person cells. There they can make phone calls, socialize, watch TV, shower and use video conferencing kiosks to visit family.
The other 20 hours are spent behind solid metal doors with small panes of glass, with a cellmate always at arm’s length. Each cell has a bunk bed, a stainless steel toilet and sink, and a small table. Meals delivered around 5:00 am, 12:00 pm and 6:00 pm will be served in the cells instead of at the tables in the common area of the cell block. It’s more efficient, prison warden Sam Crowe said.
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Cell blocks overflowing with 32 men charged with offenses of varying degrees of seriousness are leading to increased incidents of threats, aggression and fighting in a deteriorating and understaffed prison, Crowe said. Therefore, the 20-hour lockdowns, which Crowe says conform to state prison regulations regarding inmate care.
Another 50 to 60 inmates who have been struggling in prison, as well as some who have requested a more isolated existence, are spending 23 hours locked up and just one hour a day outside their cells. The hour advances every day; If someone is allowed to leave their cell at 1 a.m. today, it would be 2 a.m. the next day. These prisoners also eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in their cells.
Safety concerns over COVID-19 have not led to the lockdowns after the five-day isolation window, but Crowe said the pandemic has played a significant role.
Slow courts, longer jail terms, more serious charges
In the past two years, judges in Monroe County, as across the country, have released many nonviolent pretrial detainees from local jails who would have been held for bail or probation violations in the past.
The practice helped keep numbers down and contained the spread of COVID-19. And because the pandemic has slowed the justice system, the prison is housing more people charged with serious and violent crimes whose pending cases remain unsolved.
“We had to reduce the total number of hours for everyone to leave their cells,” Crowe said. “The dynamic has changed. We used to have 50 to 60% of the minimum security. Before the pandemic, we had 12 to 15 high-security inmates, and that has doubled or even tripled while our minimum-security inmates have fallen sharply. “
Before the outbreak of the pandemic in spring 2020, the prison housed an average of 280 people. Even now reduced by about 50 – the prison population was 235 as of August 29 – the prison is still overcrowded and grappling with a growing number of people charged with serious crimes.
“So no, we don’t have that many inmates, but these have much higher security needs, and we’re still not fully staffed,” Crowe said. “The way the prison is set up, 32 to a cell block, we can’t let them out at the same time. That creates too many problems.”
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Inmates make formal complaints
While lockdowns can make prison management easier, inmates who spend most of their time in a cell are not happy. Count Kiel Sheppard and other prisoners in Block I of the prison, including non-violent offenders. They filed a complaint in June challenging the policy and are still awaiting a response from the prison hierarchy.
“We get released for three hours in the morning, half of us, and then three days later it switches to 7pm to 11pm,” Sheppard said during a phone interview from prison. “They lock us up to eat. We eat there, one at the desk and the other sitting on the floor or on the bed with his tray on his lap,” he said.
“There are tables in the cell block. But it’s easier for them (the prison staff) to feed us in our cells. In other prisons, they all sit around a table and eat.”
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Shepard knows. He has been held in prisons in Lawrence, Brown and Monroe counties since November. He has multiple pending felonies, including possession of methamphetamine and resisting arrest. He pleaded guilty to possession of paraphernalia on August 25 in Lawrence Superior Court as part of a plea agreement that dismissed three other drug charges and gave him 36 days behind bars, already served.
He is currently in the Monroe County Jail without bail, having been arrested while other charges are pending. He has scheduled a hearing in November and hopes to solve his cases with the help of his public defender.
He said the five-day lockdown for new inmates was unfair. “The first five days that we are locked up is the most important time. You have to try to get bail together, tell your boss you won’t be at work, call someone to let your dog out. The first five days set the pace for the rest of the stay. You have 15 minutes outside the cell per day in quarantine.
The five-day isolation that most county jails instituted during the pandemic has been suspended at jails in Lawrence and Brown counties, where inmates are screened for COVID symptoms and tested if they have any. Jails in nearby Greene and Owen counties are still isolating new inmates for five days. Morgan County has a 7-day COVID-19 isolation period for inmates posted to the jail there.
Crowe defended the guideline, saying someone exposed to COVID-19 could test negative in the first few days of infection. “We have done an excellent job of keeping it (COVID) out of prison and we will continue to try to do that,” Crowe said. “Many cases are still being reported in Monroe County.”
What’s missing: Efforts to reduce re-incarceration
Sheppard complained that no AA or NA meetings were offered at the prison, where many inmates suffer from drug problems. During a recent tour of the prison, Crowe confirmed that such a room is lacking and needed. He wants programming to come back.
“We don’t have anything like that available,” Sheppard said. “Even the church they let in is just one cell every two weeks.”
He said that since there have been no face-to-face visits since the pandemic began, “People drift apart and lose the connections they need when they come out again.”
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Video calls home cost 21 cents a minute, and inmates without money in their prison commissioner’s account can’t pay them. Cellblocks have phones that send text messages, but they also cost.
“A lot of guys are here because of drugs and mental health issues, and they have broken relationships and they don’t have anyone outside to make calls like that,” Sheppard said.
No one acknowledged the inmates’ complaint, Sheppard said. “We have the right to hear it and resolve it and then appeal. We waited three weeks and submitted a written petition, but we received no response. It was signed by 30 inmates.”
Crowe said he was aware of the complaint, but it had not gone fully through the complaints process and had not yet reached his desk. When asked this week, Crowe said he stands by the current prison lockdown policy.
“I think they don’t have much to do because the state standard is one hour a day and we give them (in I Block) four,” the prison commandant said.
If he denies the demands in the complaint, which calls for 8 hours out of the cell, the prisoners can appeal to the sheriff.
Describing himself as a “college graduate, savvy with the justice system and aware of my rights,” Sheppard, 37, said he hoped the lockdown would be eased. He’ll be locked up until November, maybe longer, so there’s still time.
Contact HT reporter Laura Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-318-5967.