Greene County jail closes kitchen temporarily amid COVID-19 positives, lack of workers

Katie Kull Springfield News-Leader
Sheriff Jim Arnott thinks that 50 to 75 percent of inmates at the Green County Jail have a mental illness.

The Greene County jail has closed its kitchen temporarily amid positive coronavirus tests among inmate workers.

On Thursday evening, three inmates who worked preparing and delivering food for the roughly 850 people incarcerated at the jail told the News-Leader they had tested positive for the virus after feeling sick for multiple days.

In response to those positive tests as well as a lack of people "eligible" to be workers, the jail temporarily shut down the kitchen. Inmates were being fed with prepared food from another contractor, Greene County Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Jason Winston said.

"Inmate trustees are a huge component to food preparation in our jail," he said. "We currently do not have enough eligible inmates for trustee assignments, so we have temporarily closed our jail kitchen."

98 infected among those incarcerated

The coronavirus is not believed to be transmitted via surfaces or food. As a respiratory virus, it primarily spreads through respiratory droplets released from people's nose or mouth when they breathe, cough, talk or sneeze.

Still, the new infections among the inmate workers and others brought the total number of positive coronavirus infections among incarcerated people to 98 as of Friday afternoon, according to a news release.

Of those, one inmate was in the hospital, 31 people were showing symptoms and 69 had recovered.

Those numbers do not count people who have been released.

But a report of testing numbers obtained through a public information request showed that as of Aug. 31, 110 inmates had tested positive, and 82 had recovered. The jail had submitted 233 tests as of that date.

As of Friday, the jail news release stated 51 jail staff had tested positive, and 37 had recovered. As of Aug. 31, 190 staff had been tested.

Virus spreading through 'trailer jail,' other facilities

All of those numbers come about a month after the first coronavirus case was reported in Greene County's "trailer jail," which sits adjacent to the main building and houses up to 108 people in open, bunk-style housing.

Most of the people in the trailer eventually tested positive.

Following those reports, inmates and their family members told the News-Leader they hadn't been provided masks until after the first case was reported and noted it was nearly impossible inside the jail to practice physical distancing or take other precautions recommended to keep the virus at bay.

The virus eventually spread to other areas inside the main jail building, though the extent to which it has spread is still unknown.

Sheriff Jim Arnott, for his part, said in an interview last week he was doing the best he can, noting it is very difficult to stop the virus from spreading as the jail books in hundreds of people each month.

"You can only do what you can do," he said. "We've done a good job of keeping it out as of this point. We've booked 7,000 people in since March and we've been able to mitigate it up until August. Everyone was amazed that we've made it this far."