Nineteen inmates inside the McLennnan County Jail complex have tested positive for COVID-19 while additional inmate and staff tests remain pending, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office officials said Wednesday.
Sixteen inmates at the Highway 6 Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with three inmates at the adjoining Jack Harwell Detention Center, which has a separate staff and houses women and federal detainees, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong said.
All the infected inmates are males between the ages of 19 and 61, and all are asymptomatic. The affected inmates are in quarantine within the complex.
A total of 53 county jail employees have also tested positive. All 556 jail employees have been tested, but only 209 test results have been returned.
Jail officials are also waiting on results from tests performed July 2 and 3 on the complex’s inmate population of 1,100.
“This has been very stressful,” Armstrong said. “We tried to keep it out of our jail, but it got here and at this point we are trying to limit and decrease the amount of movement inside the facility.”
To help limit movement in the jail, Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court agreed to postpone teleconference court appearances this week Armstrong’s request. Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court said he plans to speak with jail officials Thursday.
Since the end of March, the McLennan County judicial system has conducted court hearing by teleconference for inmates inside McLennan County Jail with judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Armstrong said he requested the postponement, but judges can use their discretion for hearings.
Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the spread of the virus at the jail has caused concern for the vulnerable, densely housed populations. He said jail staff are quarantining inmates for at least 14 days when they first arrive, but with tight quarters, confining the viral outbreak is a challenge.
“This is extremely stressful, extreme serious and we are taking it very serious,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. “We are doing everything we possibly can to keep the jail as clean as possible by testing everyone who works at the jail and everyone incarcerated there.”
In March, the jail released about 80 McLennan County Jail inmates accused of nonviolent misdemeanor crimes on personal recognizance bonds. The releases are intended to reduce the jail population and limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
Local authorities have also been working with judges in accordance with guidance issued this week by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which has been gathering reports to send to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott daily.
In an attempt to slow the spread, cleaning routines have been increased and inmates at Harwell have made cloth masks for all inmates to wear at both facilities. Armstrong inmates must wear masks when they leave their cells, such as when they are exercising or being escorted by jailers.
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