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Oakland jail officials: We can't provide social distancing

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Oakland County officials testified Wednesday in federal court that they cannot provide for adequate social distancing for jail inmates amid the coronavirus, but that should not mean prisoners are released.

Curtis Childs, commander of corrective services for the county, and Vicki Warren, the health care administrator for the jail, said after being stymied by the unavailability of tests for COVID-19 throughout March and much of April, the county is taking a taking a variety of steps to remedy the threat for prisoners and staff.

The remedies include reducing the jail's inmate population by 48% since March, segregating new arrivals, reorganizing the prison population to allow for quarantines and proceeding with tests of all prisoners and repeated tests of all staff for COVID-19, the officials said during a hearing in U.S. District Court.

But, lawyers for inmates suing over conditions in the jail amid the pandemic repeatedly asked about conditions in holding cells, or “tanks,” where capacities for prisoners range from 10 to 37.

After six hours of testimony Wednesday and several hours on Monday, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker ordered the hearing to continue Thursday.

Inmates, represented by local lawyers and three legal groups, filed a class-action suit against the county last month, complaining about the protection prisoners are afforded against the coronavirus.

Vicki Warren

Warren testified that after having access to 35 test kits for about the first six weeks, she received 1,000 from the county.

She said that will allow staffers to test the remaining 600 or so inmates, down from 1,100 in March. After testing all of the prisoners, the county will then test the 250 staff members repeatedly, Warren testified.

Kevin Carlson, a lawyer for the prisoners, referred to their sworn statements about being incarcerated in such close proximity to other prisoners that they could cuddle when they slept.

Some of the “tanks” were described as having eight bunks for 10 prisoners.

“In your opinion as the health services administrator, based on your 26 years as a nurse, is it your opinion that it is appropriate and healthy for people to be sleeping on concrete floors, 10 to a room, during a pandemic of COVID-19?” Carlson asked Warren.

“They don’t directly sleep on the floor,” Warren said. “And we work within the confines we have available.”

“What do you mean when you say they are not directly sleeping on the floor?” Parker asked. “There are no beds in the cell. Where are they sleeping?”

“They sleep on two blankets,” Warren said.

“So they are given two blankets, one to sleep on and one to cover them?” the judge asked.

“I believe they are given two blankets,” Warren said. “I don’t know if they are given a sheet or not, to be honest with you.”

Warren repeatedly said she did not know how close the prisoners in the “tanks” are to each other. She said, during one response, that she did not walk around the jail with measuring devices.

“Regardless of whether you have a ruler or a measurement,” Carlson finally said, “are they close enough where they could reach out with their arms and hands and touch each other, physically?”

Warren said, “At times, maybe.”