It’s true: inmates at the Flagler County jail are not given masks to wear, and social distancing may not be possible in many circumstances. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.
“When it comes to masks, it’s a very difficult decision,” says Chief Daniel Engert, who heads the jail and court divisions at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. “Ultimately, I have to weigh safety and security of the facility, I have to be able to identify inmates. The way our facility is designed, it’s an area that makes it difficult for social distancing. We rely on the inmates to social distance themselves.”
At her sentencing hearing three weeks ago, days before she was to report to jail for her incarceration on five felony convictions, Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections, was concerned about masks: she’d heard they were not given to inmates at the Flagler County jail. She was right: they’re not given to most inmates in most circumstances, but any time an inmate interacts with anyone from beyond the jail, inmate and visitor are masked.
Weeks reported to jail on Aug. 4 to begin her 30-day sentence. Recently she called Jane Gentile-Youd, the former county commission candidate and a friend, to complain again about covid-related conditions at the jail.
“He does not allow the prisoners to wear masks,” Gentile-Youd said of Sheriff Rick Staly, “They are not social distancing, the second floor of the jail is vacant, and the beds are less than three feet apart. They’re given no fruits to eat, they’re given yellow cake every night.” Gentile-Youd was addressing the Flagler County Commission Monday. “The jail is a county building, you have to make masks mandatory,” she told the commissioners, citing the county’s resolution on the matter.
In fact, the county’s resolution does not make masks mandatory, though county administrative regulations do require masks in county buildings, and there is no “second floor” that houses inmates at the jail, though there are vacant pods (the jail was built with future capacity in mind).
“While I do appreciate your passion and concern for the inmates there are a lot of issues that need to be taken into consideration when we’re looking out for the health and safety and welfare of the inmates as well as staff,” Engert told Gentile-Youd as he took the podium at the same meeting. Gentile-Youd had given him the opening to explain. “Since the beginning of this, there’s been a number of issues that we’ve had to address. It’s been difficult for everyone.”The jail developed a plan to account for the pandemic starting in March, including education of corrections officers, other staffers and inmates. Covid-19 has been lethal to prisons and jails, with over 70 prisoners across the state killed by the disease. It’s been a different story locally.
“To date we have zero, knock on wood, zero exposures to the covid virus in the jail,” Engert said. “We’ve had some staff who have been infected, but we’ve not had inmates infected. We’ve tested each and every inmate who’s come into the facility who have positively answered that they’ve been in contact with someone who is positive covid. We have tested every inmate who has come into the facility who has had a fever or exhibited other symptoms. They are segregated from the population to keep them safe until we get a result back. We’ve had a very good working relationship with the Department of Health who’s been very strategic in working with us in providing rapid responses to those tests.”
In the facility itself, a number of initiatives have been implemented, including the installation of more than 35 hand-sanitizing locations at every point of entry that an inmate goes into–housing, medical area, the first appearance room. Inmates have the opportunity to use that sanitizer going in or out. Cleaning supplies are refreshed daily in every housing unit. Inmates are trained to properly sanitize every area they use to work or eat. “They do that very, very religiously, they take it very seriously,” Engert said.
He continued: “We have done our very best to manage this situation, and all I can say is the results at this point have been very good. I’m pleased to report that.
Higher-risk inmates–those with underlying conditions or elderly inmates–are watched and monitored with twice-daily temperature checks. Staffers are masked whenever they’re in inmates’ presence, “but again, when it comes to the inmates we need to be able to identify them. It presented a lot of challenges for us to do that and to this point the decision that I have made is to not have every inmate masked,” Engert said.
“The inmates who are under quarantine and who are being tested, until we confirm that they don’t have it, yes, they are given masks,” he continued. “Inmates are given masks every time they interact with somebody that comes in from the public. Any time an attorney comes in, the attorney must wear a mask, the inmate is given a mask. Any time they’re interacting with a religious counselor or an advisor or somebody from our programs group, they are masked, and the individual from the community is masked. There’s a lot of issues that we have to weigh. Isolating inmates is a very difficult decision to make, because we’re dealing with mental health, and oftentimes I’m not dealing with the most stable individual coming in, and many times we exasperate issues, and I have to weigh that. And I have to weigh that across the board with everyone. Again, it’s a very important issue.”
Engert said he was “in total agreement” with Gentile-Youd’s concerns. “I am concerned as well. And we make the best decisions that we can, and to this point we’ve had some success.” But he disputed the claim that inmates’ nutrition was wanting. Meals, he said, are approved by a nutritionist, and include fresh fruit “on a daily basis to each and every inmate.”