Outbreak designation lifted at Laramie County jail
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
From the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper on August 22, 2021
CHEYENNE – Throughout the summer, the Laramie County jail has struggled to overcome an outbreak of a COVID-19, which it attributed to the highly transmissible delta variant.
But as of Wednesday, for the first time in months, the jail was no longer under a major outbreak designation from the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, Detention Capt. Don Hollingshead said. Though a detention deputy had tested positive for the virus the previous week, no new cases developed within the jail.
Hollingshead said June 10 had marked the beginning of the outbreak, when 21 people held in the jail tested positive for COVID-19.
The same day, Deputy Jason Gillott, public information officer for the sheriff’s department, sent out a news release saying the department had reinstated a mask mandate for visitors to the jail building “due to a recent rash of COVID cases within our detention facility.” Gillott said the department was consulting with City-County Health to minimize further exposure, and that visitation to people held at the jail would continue remotely.
No one housed at the jail has so far had serious COVID symptoms requiring hospitalization, Hollingshead said this week.
Vaccinations were first offered on April 5, 7 and 9, and again on May 10. So far, just 36% of people jailed in Laramie County have chosen to be vaccinated, Hollingshead said.
The jail captain said vaccinations were not offered for much of the summer – during the outbreak – because the health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against administering vaccines to people who have or who may possibly the virus, and they wanted to wait until the jail’s positive case numbers went down.
COVID-19 vaccinations will again be offered on Wednesday, Aug. 25, Hollingshead said.
The jail also plans to begin to offer an incentive for those housed at the jail to receive the vaccine – specifically, individuals who choose to get vaccinated will get $20 added to their commissary account. The funds will not come out of the county budget, Hollingshead said.
“We get a small percentage back from the commissary vendor for each purchase that the inmates make from them, and this money is set aside in a separate account to be used to purchase items that benefit the inmate population,” he said.
Establishing COVID-19 protocols
Hollingshead said that when coronavirus first became national news in March 2020, jail staff met and collaborated with City-County Health to develop protocols that helped prevent an outbreak in the jail for 14 months.
Before the June 2021 outbreak, the jail had been coordinating with Cheyenne and Laramie County courts to reduce jail population, and thus free up space for social distancing, by limiting the incarceration of “nonviolent, low-risk offenders,” and by asking area law enforcement to issue citations instead of making arrests, when possible.
“We were striving to allow only violent misdemeanor offenses, such as domestics; DUIs; public safety issues, such as public intoxication during inclement weather, and felony offenses to be booked into the jail,” Hollingshead wrote in a reply on a Facebook page designated for his campaign for Laramie County sheriff.
But when the delta outbreak occurred, with 11 staff members and more than 40 inmates testing positive within a few days, the sheriff’s department asked City-County Health to assess the situation. The health department then designated the jail as a major COVID outbreak site, meaning staff would need to be even more strict about who was allowed into the jail.
“I reached out to the other area agencies and notified them of our situation and asked them to be even more selective of who they felt needed to be taken to jail. This included nonviolent felonies,” Hollingshead wrote.
The Cheyenne Police Department agreed to take “the majority” of police arrests to Platte County, where the city also has a housing contract for arrestees, Hollingshead said. But now that the jail has been removed from its major outbreak designation, it will be able to accept a larger number of arrestees.
The sheriff’s department has a close working relationship with the police department, the jail captain said, even offering CPD the use of its transport van during Cheyenne Frontier Days when multiple arrests needed to be made at one time.
Typically, CPD Capt. Jared Keslar will call him or Undersheriff Kevin James if an arrest is refused by jail staff and Keslar believes should be accepted into the jail. Hollingshead or James will then review the request and allow the person in based on Keslar’s recommendation.
There’s been at least one misstep, when a suspect involved in a motorcycle theft was not admitted into the jail and was instead taken to the Platte County jail.
“There are so many variables when considering what to allow and not allow in jail during the global pandemic, especially when, under a major outbreak quarantine designation, we did not get specific enough on how we identified nonviolent felony arrests,” Hollingshead wrote in the Facebook comment, adding that he assumed the busyness of Frontier Days contributed to the oversight.
In this case, Hollingshead said he did not receive a phone call for an override, but when he was made aware of the refusal, he contacted Keslar and outlined steps he was taking to make sure this didn’t happen again, he said.
When asked about the police department’s interactions with the sheriff’s department when it came to jailing, CPD spokesperson Alex Farkas said they had nothing to add on the topic, and that “We feel it’s best that Capt. Hollingshead remains the primary source of information” about jail policies.
Since spring 2020, jail staff have had “a very detailed protocol list” when taking in new arrestees, Hollingshead said, regardless of whether they are suspected of having COVID or not. Intake staff, law enforcement bringing the arrestee in and the arrestee themselves all wear masks.
“We take it seriously off the bat,” the jail captain said.
If an arrestee has any symptoms of COVID-19, they are isolated in a downstairs unit. If exposure to the virus is verified, or they test positive, the jail facility is shut down, staff must don full personal protective equipment, and the arrestee is taken into the quarantine unit. The parts of the building the arrestee has been through are then sanitized.
Hollingshead said new arrestees without COVID symptoms are still put in a separate unit, where they stay for 14 days to ensure they aren’t infected.
“It’s kind of like juggling plates during this COVID situation, where things change rapidly, especially with the COVID variant, having to make decisions on the fly on how to handle things that come up,” Hollingshead said. “We can’t forecast every specific situation, but we do our best, and then, when things come up that are out of the ordinary, we kind of go on the fly and figure it out, and then make adjustments, as necessary, once we get the situation kind of nailed down.”
Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said that, despite the challenges, law enforcement and jail staff seem to be developing best practices and finding a way forward.
“We’re all empathetic with the situations happening with COVID,” Collins said. “The last 18 months have been really tough, and everybody’s trying to figure out the way forward. ... For the first time in a long time, staff and (jail) population (are) healthy, and we hope it’ll stay that way.”
Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.