WINCHESTER — In a delicate balance of protecting public health while preserving public safety, about 60 inmates are being released this week to prevent a coronavirus outbreak at the regional jail.
“We are not giving them get-out-of-jail-free cards,” Judge Brian Madden told Bradley B. Triplett, Department of Probation and Parole District 11 deputy chief probation and parole officer, during an early release hearing in Winchester Circuit Court on Wednesday. “Zero tolerance. Spread the word.”
Because social distancing is nearly impossible in jails and prisons, they can be breeding grounds for diseases and are vulnerable to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The pandemic has killed about 20,500 people worldwide, including nine people in Virginia, through Wednesday afternoon. At New York City’s Rikers Island jail, 21 inmates and 17 employees had been diagnosed with the virus through Saturday, according to The Washington Post.
Staff at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center on Fort Collier Road in Frederick County have been monitoring what other jails are doing and planning on how to deal with COVID-19 since late January. Efforts include designating areas that could serve as quarantine pods and unsuccessfully trying to purchase N95 respiratory masks, which are in short supply.
“We’re trying to minimize any danger,” Capt. Clay Corbin, commander of the jail’s community corrections programs, told Madden. “It takes seven to 14 days before there are any [virus] symptoms. It could be out of control before we could contain it.”
Most of the inmates being released locally are within 60 days of their release date and about 25 are part of the work release program, which is being suspended today. Work release inmates are considered a high risk for contracting the virus because they work outside the jail each day before returning at night. Most work release inmates, who must have nonviolent records to be part of the program, are being released into Home Electronic Monitoring. That involves them wearing ankle monitors with GPS tracking.
The early releases will decrease the jail’s inmate population by about 15%, which has had an average daily population of 635 inmates from 2015 through last year. There were 539 inmates at the jail on Wednesday. The jail also has about 185 staff.
Most of the inmates at hearings on Wednesday had nonviolent records. They included Lisa Ann Grady, who was serving time for a probation violation related to a cocaine possession conviction. Defense attorney Krystal Omps said Grady has been working 12 hours per day, seven days a week at her job. But Grady would lose her job because of the suspension of work release if she remained incarcerated. Omps said Grady was a “model inmate,” but Heather D. Hovermale, Winchester deputy commonwealth’s attorney, objected to Grady’s release, citing a long record of probation violations. Nonetheless, Madden granted the release.
“If you screw up once, you go back in,” Madden told Grady. “And I won’t authorize work release again.”
Corbin said before the hearing that jail staff developed a list of inmates to consider for early release in consultation with Marc Abrams, Winchester commonwealth’s attorney, and Ross Spicer, Frederick County commonwealth’s attorney. However, prosecutors from both offices raised objections to some of the proposed releases.
Kristen G. Zalenski, a county assistant commonwealth’s attorney, told Judge Alexander R. Iden that George Albert Slonaker II, convicted for driving while intoxicated in 2018, was too dangerous to release early. Slonaker, scheduled to be released on May 5, said he had a construction job lined up and was seeking a furlough so he could better provide for his three children who live with his mother.
But Zalenski noted Slonaker had at least four drunken driving convictions since 2008. One involved a death in 2010. Iden said he was committed to efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve, but denied Slonaker’s release. He said he couldn’t live with the possibility of Slonaker driving drunk and killing someone again after being released early.
Corbin said after the hearing that the jail doesn’t have a specific number that they want inmate population to be, but fewer inmates means more space for potential quarantine areas.
“We didn’t have those options with a full house,” Corbin said.