Howard County Jail closed as COVID outbreak hits sheriff, inmates

The 15 detainees who were held in the jail have been sent to Cooper County

By: and - December 3, 2020 9:59 am

The Howard County Courthouse in Fayette. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

An entire jail in central Missouri is empty today due to a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates and staff.

The Howard County Sheriff’s Department closed Saturday and sent the 15 detainees to Cooper County. Sheriff Mike Neal, at least one deputy and most of the jail staff are infected with the coronavirus.

The department posted a notice it was closed Saturday on its Facebook page. The post did not state what residents of the county who live outside cities and towns should do to obtain law enforcement.

Neal could not be reached for comment Thursday. 

No one else was available from the department either, a dispatcher told the Missouri Independent on Wednesday afternoon.

“They are all out for quarantine,” the dispatcher, who did not give her name, said.

The Fayette Advertiser reported Tuesday that 15 prisoners were moved to the Cooper County Jail in Boonville at a cost of $35 to $40 a day. Neal told the newspaper that he expects they will be held there until at least mid-December.

Neal also told the newspaper that he, a deputy and most jail staff have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

“I had no people,” he said. “Everybody’s sick.”

While the inmates are out of the jail, healthy jail and department staff will clean and disinfect the entire jail and sheriff’s office, he said.

Christopher Turner, who bonded out of the jail Nov. 24, told The Independent that he began feeling ill three days before his release. Turner was held in the jail for two weeks.

“I kept telling them something was wrong and they did not take it seriously or brushed me aside like it did not matter,” Turner said. 

He was released when Associate Circuit Judge Mason Gebhardt reduced his bond on an assault charge.

“It was not until court when they actually wore a mask for the first time in that courtroom and Mike Neal told the judge I was sick and he needed his mask on,” Turner said.

On his last day in the jail, Turner said, he begged repeatedly for help, including medications to alleviate cold symptoms. There were six men in his jail pod and he said he believes four or five were sick.

They knew that most of us were sick in there,” Turner said. “And they didn’t do anything about it until (the) last night when I threatened to call my girlfriend to send an ambulance for me.”

Despite the known illness among deputies, jail staff and prisoners, the Howard County Courthouse is listed as in what the state judiciary calls Phase 2 of reopening, which allows for most in-person hearings to proceed and limits occupancy in courtrooms to 25 people or less.

Randolph County, the other county in the 14th Judicial Circuit is in Phase Zero, which means most in-person proceedings are suspended and public access to the courthouse is greatly limited.

Presiding Judge Scott Hayes was not available Thursday morning for comment on conditions in Howard County of if he was aware that hearings with infected people, including Turner and Neal on Nov. 24, had occurred.

Neal “went in and told everybody, ‘Hey, he’s sick, you need to put on a mask’ and, and still the sheriff didn’t put on his mask at all, and the prosecutor, she didn’t put on her mask at all, either,” Turner said. “They never wear a mask even though they come in coughing and sneezing.”

Howard County, with a population of 10,001, has recorded 524 confirmed coronavirus infections, including 259 since Nov. 1, according to data through Thursday from the state Department of Health and Senior Services. 

The county has the eighth highest per-capita infection for the past seven days, according to state data and is 43rd out of 117 local health jurisdictions in the state for the entire course of the pandemic.

The county’s overall infection rate, 523.9 per 10,000 residents, is slightly above the overall state rate, which was of 504.1 per 10,000 residents after the Department of Health and Senior Services reported 3,998 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday. There have been 309,368 cases in the state since the first was reported in March.

Howard County has recorded three COVID-19 deaths and the state total rose to 4,102 deaths after an additional 57 were reported Thursday.

The Howard County Health Department administrator could not be reached Thursday morning for comment on steps being taken to control infection in the jail, sheriff’s department and courthouse, which also houses county administrative offices.

County Clerk Shelly Howell referred questions about courthouse operations to the Howard County Commission. The commission did not respond Thursday to a voice message.

The detainees from Howard County are being held separately from the Cooper County Jail’s other inmates and they have not been allowed to mix in common areas, Cooper County Sheriff Jerry Wolfe said.

When the Howard County inmates are allowed into the day room, he said, staff use decontamination equipment on the areas where they are held and decontaminate the day room after their time outside their cells ends.

“So far, everything is working good and everybody is doing what they are supposed to,” Wolfe said. “We hated to leave, especially a bordering county, hated to leave them hanging with a situation like that and so, we are doing our best at this point to help.”

There have been large outbreaks of COVID-19 in several of the state’s largest jails, including Greene County, which closed its jail kitchen amid an outbreak in September, and St. Louis County, which had an outbreak in early October. And in late November, 122 cases were found at the Jackson County Jail.

Until now, there does not appear to be another county in the state that has been forced to empty its jail in response to a COVID-19 outbreak.

The state Department of Corrections has 500 active cases among inmates and has recorded 4,745 cases and 36 inmate deaths as of Wednesday. There were 1,815 staff cases, with 171 active and four deaths.

Some jails have implemented strict infection-control procedures to prevent outbreaks. The Cape Girardeau County Jail, which is struggling with overcrowding, makes each person booked into custody to take a decontamination shower and spend the first 14 days in custody in a holding area to quarantine them from long-term detainees, the Southeast Missourian reported.

At the Cooper County Jail, Wolfe said, new arrestees are isolated for at least three days for observation and if “there is any kind of indication” of illness, they are tested for COVID-19. 

“If they say, I was exposed to someone, we get them tested,” Wolfe said. “We don’t want to let somebody slip through without being tested.”

There were no infection-control measures in place in the Howard County Jail while he was being held, Turner said.

“At the jail, they never wear a mask,” he said. “They don’t do COVID testing. They don’t do the social distancing.”

There was no attempt to find out if he was sick when he was arrested in early November, Turner said.

“They just put me right into a pod,” he said. “They brought someone else in and just put him back to a pod. They didn’t COVID test, neither one of us. So there’s germs everywhere going around their facilities.”

Turner was not able to obtain a test until after his release. A jailer finally brought him some cold medications the evening before his release, returning to the jail after his shift, because Turner had been asking throughout the day for something to relieve his symptoms.

That was the only help he received, he said.

I felt like my well being was not important to anyone,” Turner said. “Once I was in the orange and behind bars they viewed me as something other than a human being.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.