Hancock County’s jailer says that COVID-19 has become a sort of get out of jail free card for people arrested in the county, where upon their arrival at jail they simply say they’ve been exposed to the virus or have tested positive, and they’re turned away and allowed to go home.
“I can tell you out of the last five people I took to jail, they have denied three of them, because of that,” said jailer Roger Estes. “And no proof.”
Since Hancock County no longer has an active jail it has contracted with the Breckinridge County Detention Center in Hardinsburg to house its inmates, so the fate of county arrestees is in the Breckinridge jailer’s hands.
On Monday, sheriff’s deputies and with the Kentucky State Police stopped a man driving a stolen vehicle, but when Estes got him to the jail, the man claimed he had COVID-19 and so Estes had to bring him back and let him go.
“When we arrested him he never mentioned, he never had a symptom, he never done nothing,” he said. “Well I got him up there, then he told them that he had tested positive. I said why didn’t you tell me? He said, ‘You didn’t ask me,’ real hateful.”
The deputy asked the man where he’d been tested and he said in Louisville a week and a half before, but when pressed for more details he said it was a free clinic and he didn’t remember which one.
When the deputy asked him if it was a drive-thru the man seemed to just go along.
“You know I think it was a drive-thru,” Estes quoted the man as saying.
“If he went through a drive-thru to get tested he would’ve known it a week and a half later,” Estes said. “He’s lying like a dog.”
“But when they refuse them there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can’t prove they’re lying, but I can’t prove they’ve actually got it either.”
In an instance when an inmate has been refused, Estes said he has to call a judge and let them make a decision on what should be done, but on non-major crimes they are sent home with a court date.
“If it was murder or something I guess I’d just have to move them into my house, I don’t know,” he said.
Breckinridge County’s jailer Tara Shrewsberry disputed Estes’ characterization and said that almost no inmates have been turned away due to COVID-19.
“Off the top of my head I can think of two that we have outright refused because of COVID and that’s it, since all of this started,” she said. Claims of COVID exposures or infections haven’t increased much among the people brought to the jail under arrest.
“There is a few, one out of 10 that make that statement, but not many,” she said. “And it doesn’t get anybody out of jail.”
She then clarified to say that it might get them out of jail in that moment, but not for long.
“I mean it might,” she said. “If somebody comes in and they’re able to prove that they’ve had it then we would refuse them just based on not having a place to put them, but they’ll end up coming back.”
When someone is arrested and brought to the jail they go through a basic COVID check, having their temperature taken and being asked a series of questions about exposures and symptoms.
“If they don’t flag on any of those or have a fever then we normally go ahead and take them,” she said.
But Estes said that word is spreading that certain answers to those questions can mean going home instead of being booked, having a mug shot, and posting bond.
“It’s getting around,” he said. “What they’re doing, they’ll say hey, I got out of going to jail. I just told them I had COVID.”
That doesn’t work everywhere, Estes said, and he gave the example of a woman he was taking to Daviess County jail who’d said she had COVID-19 and had lost her sense of taste and smell. Estes called ahead and told them what the woman said and asked if he should still bring her.
“You know what he says? ‘Everybody that comes in there lies to us and tells us that, so bring her on down here and we’ll get the nurse to check her out and we’ll go from there.’ And they take them,” he said.
Daviess County has more beds than Breckinridge County, but Shrewsberry points to crowding at her jail as the main issue.
“We are so full right now. We have 218 people, 190 beds,” she said.
Estes wondered if the jail should keep rapid COVID-19 tests on hand, or even if Hancock County should buy some for the inmates they take to jail, but he said he hopes something changes before the situation gets worse.
“It is a problem,” he said. “The one yesterday, we had him at gunpoint on his belly in Highway 60 and we had to release him.”
By Dave Taylor