Jail count continuing to fall amid virus crisis

Apr 9, 2020 By Clair McFarland, Staff Writer

The county's jail population is down to 116 - roughly half its New Year's total.

The Fremont County Detention Center suffered from overcrowding for at least three seasons prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Its current low numbers are due to restructuring of court processes locally amid exposure concerns, which were exacerbated by the threat of a crowded jail - and by a changing criminal element.

Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee called the decrease a relief.

"Obviously it frees up space, and it lessens the stress on employees," said the sheriff, emphasizing that an outbreak in the jail would impact inmates, deputy sheriffs and associated staff who work in the jail - and the taxpayer as well.

Virus policies

In the event of an outbreak, non-hospitalized inmates would be quarantined within the jail. Staff members would be sent to their homes.

Lee's office for months had negotiated deals with other jails, arranged home confinement, and juggled other solutions to the longtime overcrowding, often with cost complications of normal incarceration expenses.

During the week of March 23, the jail volume dropped from 187 to 155 inmates - then an unheard-of low for five years. Numbers kept plunging, to a 15-year-low of 116 on Wednesday, just three months after mid-winter spikes of 210.

The numbers continue to plunge because of altered court processes, but also because local courts and police are being "careful about whom we're taking into custody," said Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun.

He noted that courts take "extreme care to only keep people in jail that we feel are clearly, presently dangerous, or are charged with felonies."

When asked if the limited police response system undertaken amid the county's level-two emergency lockdown helped to decrease the jail population, LeBrun countered "I don't think that's it... They're responding to calls where there is danger, and otherwise they're taking reports. They're still working. We have active law enforcement."

Fremont County Public Defender Jonathan Gerard clarified the heightened law enforcement discretion, saying the jail has continued to empty because of both limited responses and a drop in some violent crimes.

"They're pretty much only arresting for violent crimes, and there haven't been, almost, any," said Gerard in a voice message on Wednesday. "I think that's really the driver."

He noted that some intoxication and intoxicated driving suspects are held for a period of time before being released to meet their next court dates.

'Extremely bad'

medical costs

LeBrun said that while costs to the county in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in the jail haven't been calculated by his office, "that would be extremely bad in terms of medical costs, and in terms of protecting people within the jail."

Lee agreed that detention center infection would incur "substantial" costs, but said not every case requires hospitalization.

"So if an inmate in the facility were to contract it, they would be isolated and cared for by our nursing staff - but if they had to be hospitalized, that would be a considerable expense" stemming both from medical costs and the need for round-the-clock supervision.

Among confirmed coronavirus cases in Wyoming, about 13 percent have reported hospitalization.

The jail has the same amount of medical personnel as it did before the county's first reported coronavirus case.

No positive cases have been reported within the facility.

Weighing health risks

In a March 23 interview with The Ranger, Riverton Circuit Court Judge Wesley Roberts responded to the infection threat of the crowded jail by giving eligible candidates a second chance at probation, releasing long-term inmates who were nearing the end of their sentences, and fast-tracking plea change hearings to accelerate sentencing of pre-adjudicated inmates.

For early releases and probations, Roberts said he identified cases in which "the risk of harm or health risk inside the jail by having an overcrowded situation outweighed the risk to the community by the release."

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