By KEVIN F. COPPINGER
As advocacy groups continue to push for mass releases of inmates due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many are portraying our correctional facilities as overcrowded, unsanitary, lacking proper health care, with some going to the extent of calling time inside a “death sentence.” Such statements are grossly false and misleading. It is time for a fact check, time to learn what reality is inside a jail.
As sheriff of Essex County and former Lynn police chief, I take great offense when others try to discredit our operations or cloud the facts. At the outbreak of COVID-19, I was among the first to say there were people in jail who could be released, and we have done that in partnership with the district attorney and the judiciary. But I have also said there are people in jail who belong in jail — people who have committed serious and violent crimes. We must not forget the victims of those crimes, nor the victims of future crimes.
Using COVID-19 as a ruse to get individuals released who should remain in jail is a serious detriment to public safety. We have seen inmates released who in turn commit serious offenses. We cannot jeopardize the public safety of those who reside in our communities. Truth and common sense should prevail.
Correctional facilities, like all parts of society, have not been immune to the virus. Since March 10, we have seen 70 inmates at our Middleton facility test positive, but only one active case remains today. All but three of these inmates were treated within our facility. Many who push for mass releases will only talk about the 70 and will not mention the 64 who have recovered and the five who were released. Unfortunately, we did lose one individual who also suffered from an unreported and underlying health condition.
We follow Centers for Disease Control Correctional Guidelines and our correctional and medical staff work as a team, sharing thoughts and ideas daily. For new inmates, a 14-day quarantine unit has been established. Nurses conduct daily rounds in the housing units looking for signs of COVID-19, including temperature checks. Rigorous cleaning of all areas is done routinely. Inmates have been educated on proper personal hygiene and provided with the needed resources. Restrictions on movement within the facility help prevent cross-contamination. All inmates, as well as staff, are mandated to wear masks.
Those in our custody do receive proper health care — and for many, better care than they would receive if released. Our Medical Housing Unit is staffed 24/7 and is logistically set up to handle not only the COVID-19 cases, but also the various other medical needs of our inmates that have not been forgotten
We meet the daily needs of all of those in custody in a secure and humane manner. History has shown us that recently released inmates often return to living on the streets, relying on homeless shelters and soup kitchens. These living conditions increase exposure and risk of COVID-19. I suggest these life-sustaining necessities are better provided by the Sheriffs’ Departments for those in our custody.
Globally, the impact of this virus changes every day. Our national experts tell us to expect future spikes throughout the country and we are preparing for such scenarios here in Essex County. As a professional, accredited and regulated agency, we are charged with the safe care, custody and control of our inmate population. We are also responsible for public safety and the protection of all those who inhabit our communities. We are well equipped to do both.
Kevin F. Coppinger is sheriff of Essex County.