Wood County Jail testing one inmate for COVID-19

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WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. (WSAW) -- County jails are making changes to keep inmates and corrections officers safe during the coronavirus pandemic and preparing should a positive case walk through the doors.

Wood County Courthouse. Oct 2, 2018 (WSAW)

Wood County Sheriff Shawn Becker said they are awaiting COVID-19 test results for one inmate. In the meantime, that inmate is being held in isolation.

There have been concerns about mental health as the response from this virus has caused social distancing and isolation. The Wood County Jail has a recent history of inmate deaths due to suicide prior to this pandemic, so Sheriff Becker said they are working especially hard to ensure mental health is maintained in the jail during this time.

"A lot of the inmates are suffering from either addiction issues or mental health issues," he said.

Those issues are not unique to the Wood County Jail, but 7 Investigates obtained the reports about inmate suicides at the jail from 2005-2018, which is the years the previous sheriff was in office. The reports showed seven people died by suicide in the jail during that time, five of which happened in the last three years.

Changing resources, training, and protocol in the jail was something Sheriff Becker ran on during his campaign before he became sheriff last year, and he has implemented a lot of those changes.

"We had a suicide attempt last night and the staff interveined right away saved somebody's life," he said. "This is an inmate that's suffering right now. He's attempted suicide just since early February seven times."

The facility is an older, linear style, which he said presents additional challenges. There is only one cell that's best for suicide monitoring. Corrections officers also do not have good vantage points to monitor several inmates easily, even with security cameras because of the layout. So, they check on inmates every 30 minutes, and if the inmate is on a suicide watch, that time is reduced to 15 minutes.

"Somebody can still take their life in no matter what time-frame," Sheriff Becker warned. "We had a corrections officer and, like I said, a deputy to go check on someone because they felt something wasn't right and they prevented a tragedy."

Now add in a pandemic. Jails are implementing social distancing, no more visitations, and canceling programs to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sheriff Becker said they have allowed inmates to make more phone calls and, luckily, they began a partnership with Aspirus Riverview Hospital to provide a full-time behavioral health therapist, who started working in the jail the first week of March.

Nicki Williams, Aspirus' behavioral health system director said the therapist is more of a crisis worker right now, as there are several people on suicide watch.

"There's a lot of heightened anxiety, is my understanding talking with her," she said. "The anxiety at the jail from the inmates, they don't really know what's going on except for the TV that they watch, so they don't have a lot of outside perspectives."

She said they are working on hiring another therapist in the jail to assist.

To prepare for the pandemic, the Wood County Jail, like many other jails, is working to reduce their inmate population to make sure they have enough places where they can isolate and quarantine people should they get a case.

Sheriff Becker said they stopped arresting people who fail to pay a citation as of last week. They also, in part due to existing overcrowding issues, have about 100 inmates housed in other jails.

The electronic monitoring program is being expanded as well, with judges reevaluating non-violent inmates who have cash bonds and inmates with existing medical issues who are at a higher risk. Sheriff Becker made it clear, though, people who commit violent crimes whether they be misdemeanors or felonies will be arrested and no violent offenders will be out on electronic monitor.