Investigation: Inside the COVID-19 pandemic behind bars in Benton and Franklin county jails

BENTON AND FRANKLIN COUNTIES, WA – The latest COVID-19 outbreak in Benton County Jail left 97 inmates, out of 420, COVID positive which affected nearly half of the jail’s pods (8 out of the 20 housing units in use – 2 of which are only partially used). Letters from inmates detailing their concern over how COVID-19 is being handled in the jails in both Benton and Franklin County culminated with the voice of a local woman whose brother is sick in Franklin County Jail.

“Right now with him battling COVID and being as sick as he is, he really is scared for his life and I am scared for his life because that’s my brother,” said Natalia Timmons, a WSU Tri-Cities student.

Timmons said her brother was never tested for COVID-19 even though he was exposed to COVID positive inmates and was experiencing severe symptoms, such as tightness of chest, difficulty breathing, and trouble standing without feeling light-headed.

“He has high blood pressure and is considered a high-risk individual. When his cellmate told me how hard of a time he was having to breathe, I wondered why aren’t the medical staff properly treating him?” said Timmons.

According to Timmons, her brother was never tested for COVID-19.

“He asked to be tested multiple times and said he and even other inmates who press their stress button in their cells to get help don’t usually get medical attention until hours later,” said Timmons.

Franklin County Jail Commander Stephen Sultemeier said in response, “I know who that individual is. And he is being taken care of.”

Timmons stated when she called to ask the jail and nursing staff how her brother is doing, that few information was divulged to her, even though she is his power of attorney.

“In cases like his, we are treating him like he is already a COVID positive patient because he was exposed to people who were sick with COVID. So what we do is keep the COVID-positive people together and isolate them so they don’t infect anyone else. We don’t have a bunch of tests to just test every single person exposed to COVID. If they are exposed and showing symptoms, we treat them as if they have it.” said Sultemeier.

“If that’s the case, why did a corrections officer tell my brother’s attorney that he doesn’t have COVID and is fine?” asked Timmons.

Additionally, Timmon’s brother wrote to her explaining how he was placed in a holding cell with others who had COVID when he did not have COVID.

“My brother said that in that cell people were sick and vomiting. The toilet was overflowing and people were literally sitting in their own bile and excrements,” said Timmons.

Sultemeier responded saying that claim is false.

“We take care of the guys in here and are making sure they’re cleaned up. And we are not putting sick people together with non-sick people. Sometimes if someone is vomiting or showing symptoms like that, that could also mean that they’re detoxing in holding cell from drugs or alcohol.” said Sultemeier.

Meanwhile, in Benton County Jail, one inmate amongst others shared how someone who had COVID was walking around freely.

“This isn’t right. My cellmates are sick, and we have to beg the staff for help so that they can get treated. It usually takes hours. And sick people are being mixed with non-infected people. I feel like they’re treating this like a joke,” said the inmate, “And some of the officers will hacking and coughing and not even wearing masks.”

A letter from one inmate in Benton County Jail stated “In pod 301, 4 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week or so. None of these inmates have been moved to quarantine. The staff simply put them together in cells, the same housing pod as myself and the rest of the population.”

Lieutenant Joshua Combs of Benton County Jail had the following response: “That is correct because sometimes inmates don’t understand that putting someone in the same pod doesn’t mean we’re putting infected and non-infected people together in the same room.” said Combs. “Pods like Pod 301 can have as many as 30 cells that lock and keep people separated in quarantine.”

In both Franklin and Benton County Jail, inmates are separated and grouped into certain categories: day of arrival, COVID positive, COVID exposed, and non-COVID positive nor exposed.

“Anytime we have inmates that are just booked and coming into the jail, we quarantine them regardless if they’re COVID positive or not for 10 days.” said both Lt. Combs and Commander Sultememeir. “Then we either isolate those who are COVID positive and quarantine those who have been exposed. Those who are not exposed or are not COVID positive can stay in the same group.”

Therefore, the group you belong to is the group you will either share a cell with or go to outside recreation with.

“And for those who let’s say they come into the jail January 4th, we then have a chart that shows that that group of inmates that entered January 4th will then be able to enter the general population after January 14th, barring they don’t test positive for COVID or show symptoms,” said Lt. Combs.

Benton County tests all inmates that first enter the jail, while Franklin County has a little less of a supply of COVID tests.

One inmate from Benton County Jail also wrote about another incident at dinner:

“The COVID-19 positive inmates were out in the day room with no masks and no gloves. Officer Armstrong allowed both men to approach the food cart with no gloves or masks and dig into the trey stacks….Myself and other men demanded he replace the entire cart now that it was contaminated. He said ‘it doesn’t work like that and refused our demands. The end result was that they told the inmates that ‘if you want to eat, come get a tray.’ Therefore, issuing an ultimatum that men either eat the contaminated food or go without.”

“That issue was submitted by the inmate already through the grievance system we have and it was solved and rectified,” answered Lt. Combs. “We addressed that’s not how we run things here and that could have been easily avoided by just replacing some of the trays the COVID positive inmates touched.”

Inmates who have written letters and also spoken via phone have shared how the phones and microwaves are not being cleaned even after COVID positive inmates use them.

“We bleach and disinfect high-touch surface areas twice a day.” responded Lt. Combs.

Furthermore, Lt. Combs added, “Even before the general population was concerned about COVID, we prepared in advance. We even reduced our population size to 30 cells in a housing unit to be able to prepare for the possibilities of quarantining inmates.”

In both Benton and Franklin County, some cells are single-holding cells designed for high-risk inmates or those on a temporary hold or suicide watch. However, most of the time, a small cell fits 2 to 3 inmates.

In a letter that Natalia Timmons has from her brother, it states “The guards often get angry if we ask for cleaning supplies, masks, or blankets.”

Both Benton and Franklin County Jails stated they give their inmates masks and the guards N95 masks to be worn when social distancing is not possible.

“But a lot of the guards don’t wear the masks” said one inmate.

“And sometimes the inmates don’t comply,” stated Sultemeier.

The letter from a Benton County inmate says the metal nose pinch is taken out of the masks.

“We do that purposefully as a safety precaution so that the inmates don’t try to make a weapon out of it,” said Lt. Combs.

According to both Commander Sultemeier and Lieutenant Combs, COVID-19 protocols have been in place for the past two years and have even vaccinated some of their inmates.

“I am very proud of our officers and what we’ve done here.” said Lt. Combs.

“I think with this pandemic and how unpredictable it has been we’ve done a pretty good job,” said Commander Sultemeier.

However, Timmons still doesn’t know too much about how her brother is doing as one inmate states “I feel my health and the health of others has been very much neglected.”

“I’ll call the nurses station and they don’t tell me much and I worry a lot about him,” said Timmons. “I hear all the time from my brother and other inmates how poorly they are treated in there – not even an animal deserves that. That’s my brother and there are others there that that’s someone’s dad, mom, daughter, or son.”

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Article Source: Fox 11