PBSO taking extensive precautions due to COVID-19; Inmates making masks to supply county’s two jails

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/PBSO
BELLE GLADE — An inmate sews one of the over 4,500 masks that have been made through the PBSO’s sewing initiative, which rewards inmates with gain time.

BELLE GLADE — The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) is following a strict set of policy protocols because of officials’ concern over the constant threat of a COVID-19 virus outbreak occurring in its detention facilities or offices.

This newspaper inquired last week about what precautions were being taken in the main Palm Beach County Jail on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach as well as the West Detention Center (WDC) in Belle Glade, located at 38811 James Wheeler Way. PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera replied in an email, listing policies and actions that have been implemented and practiced since April 10.

“We are temperature testing each and every inmate weekly in both jails,” she wrote.
Also, these measures have been put in place:
• “Temperature units have been installed in the main courthouse, the staff entrance way of the main jail and the West Detention Center.
• “All corrections deputies are wearing masks and gloves (which are changed routinely).
• “We are enforcing social distancing and hand washing through verbal conversation, educational videos, literature and signs in the housing areas.”

In addition, Ms. Barbera said, the PBSO made an opportunity available in early May for inmates to earn gain time, up to five days for each month worked, by fashioning face masks for county inmates. This was after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines calling for all citizens to wear face masks when out in public, in places where social distancing would not be doable.

That certainly includes jails, said Alma Wells, a member of the corrections support personnel at WDC, in a video the PBSO made last month about its sewing programs in the jails.

“The jail itself is a small community, so these inmates — for their safety as well as our safety — they need masks. So far to date, we’ve made over 4,500 masks … so we’re going to continue where there’s a need,” Ms. Wells said.

Another corrections spokeswoman said, “It is mandatory that when they are out of the dorms, like if they have to go to medical or CORE … they have to wear it, but it is up to their discretion to wear it inside the dorm.”

She continued: “I think the sheriff’s office has taken a big step in helping their inmates have a hand in what’s happening here. As one of the inmates said, ‘It’s making history — we’re making history right now. We’re in here in jail making over 4,000 masks!’ So it’s a big deal; it’s not anything to take lightly.”

David Eberhart, unit manager of corrections contract compliance at WDC, said in the video: “The CDC is recommending that anybody who can’t maintain social distancing at least have some sort of cloth covering. I think it provides a level of comfort for the inmates that are concerned about the coronavirus.”

Ms. Wells said they were tasked with making 4,000 masks at first and exceeded that by a few hundred in the first few weeks. She said the total production so far is about 4,500.

The video shows detainees sewing the masks, which have sets of two straps on each side, to be tied behind the head, and cover the entire face from the upper nose to the chin for protection. So far, eight inmates at WDC are involved in the program.

Other procedures are in place for new arrestees so that the virus is not imported into the inmate populations:
• Arrestees “are met in the sally port area and screened by a medical professional for temperature and symptoms of illness,” as well as asked a number of questions, Ms. Barbera’s email said. “If the overall triage brings concern, they are transported to the hospital for clearance. No one enters the building, including the arresting deputy/officer, without being screened.”
• In the jails’ dormitories, “Daily education is provided to the inmates via posters and video. The video is played six times daily and provides instructions from CDC on how to stay safe in this pandemic. Soap is provided to inmates, and they are encouraged to wash their hands in hot water as per the guidelines.”
• “If anyone displays symptoms — deputies or inmates — they are quarantined and reviewed by medical. Steps are taken to isolate others who may have contact with the individual with symptoms until they are tested and cleared by testing.”
• In addition to temperature-testing the inmates, “we are examining ALL who enter the building; employees, deputies, vendors or delivery folks who partially enter the building.”
• Staff also are being trained in all CDC requirements as they have evolved over time.
• “Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has invested in innovative ways with the latest technology to keep the inmates and his employees safe.”

Finally, regarding a complaint PBSO received alleging that lines of communication between inmates and their families were stopped, the email stated: “ The Video Visitation Center is OPEN and is FREE to the families and friends of all inmates. Inmates are allowed two visits per week. The center is diligent in sanitizing the areas used by the families to ensure their safety.”

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