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‘An eerie feeling’: Carroll County law enforcement, prosecutors limit contact; detention center screens inmates

A sign posted on the door at the Carroll County Detention Center on Wednesday advises that visits have been canceled due to precautions related to the coronavirus.
A sign posted on the door at the Carroll County Detention Center on Wednesday advises that visits have been canceled due to precautions related to the coronavirus. (Dylan Slagle)

As Carroll County deals with the ripple effects of the coronavirus, sheriff’s deputies are wearing gloves, most court cases are on hold, and the detention center is screening new inmates and considering whether existing inmates can be let go early.

“It’s an eerie feeling," Sheriff Jim DeWees said Tuesday. “We’re just waiting for something to happen that we may not see.”

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Carroll County Sheriff’s Office deputies are in good health, DeWees said, and are wearing gloves when interacting with the public. He said they are still responding to calls as usual, but taking reports over the phone when they can.

“Our call volume is very low right now, lower than it would typically be," DeWees said. “I think everybody kind of understands what’s going on.”

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Deputies have the ability to file reports electronically and do not need to come to the office to fulfill their responsibilities. DeWees has a weekly conference call with area police chiefs to stay in touch.

DeWees said he is concerned that domestic disputes might be more frequent while people are self-quarantining at home to reduce the spread of the disease, though they haven’t seen an increase thus far.

On Monday, there were two reports of coronavirus-related scams in Eldersburg. Someone posted a notice on homes saying the houses were under quarantine by order of the state. DeWees said they called the number on the notice and found it to be fraudulent. He encourages anyone who suspects a scam to call the Sheriff’s Office at 410-386-5900.

There are at least 85 cases of the coronavirus also known by the disease it causes, COVID-19, in Maryland as of Wednesday. There are two cases in Carroll County as of Wednesday: a man in his 40s and a woman in her 30s who are related to each other and have mild symptoms, according to Carroll County Department of Health. The second of those cases was not included in the state’s total of 85.

As of noon Wednesday, the coronavirus had resulted in 118 deaths in the United States out of more than 7,700 people who have tested positive for the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. The World Health Organization deemed the coronavirus a pandemic March 11.

Detention Center screens new inmates

At the Carroll County Detention Center, to say that staff have been preparing for potential cases of COVID-19 is an understatement, according to the warden, George Hardinger.

“That’s all we have talked about for the last week since this thing started hitting people between the eyes,” he said. “Some people were blowing this off almost, calling it fake news and everything. We never took that attitude. When it first surfaced, Sheriff DeWees and I got together and said, ‘We have to be responsible and start planning.’ ”

That meant revisiting the detention center’s pandemic plan as a refresher in case the coronavirus began spreading through Carroll County in earnest, as well as more short-term prevention measures aimed at keeping the disease out of the detention center altogether. A contagious threat like the coronavirus could spread quickly in tight indoor spaces like a detention center.

The detention center ended visitation with inmates on March 12, according to Hardinger, and shut down all nonessential services for both inmates and corrections staff.

“That includes the library, volunteers coming in for whatever reason; that’s all being shut down,” he said. “We have vending machines someone would have to come in and restock — we turned them away.”

Attorneys will still be able to meet with their clients, DeWees said, though they will have to speak through the phone or with glass in between them.

Hardinger said he is also making sure the detention center has a more than ample supply of thermometers, gloves and disinfectant.

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“We go through a lot of gloves under any circumstances, so we have to not only maintain what we normally do, but anticipate we will be using more,” Hardinger said.

As new inmates come in, DeWees said they’re being asked whether they’ve traveled, if they have symptoms, and whether they’ve been in contact with anyone who is ill. Detention center staff are also checking temperatures of new inmates and have the ability to perform a rapid flu test to rule out that possibility, according to DeWees.

The detention center is not transferring inmates to other facilities or accepting transfers, he said.

As of Wednesday evening, there were no known cases of COVID-19 at the detention center, DeWees said, but anyone being booked and entering the facility is being screened and there are isolation units available where staff can sequester anyone suspected of being ill.

“We have two isolation cells where the air doesn’t circulate with the normal air, so that will be our first line of defense if we have someone we suspect is sick,” Hardinger said. “If we have more cases than that, I have to designate one of my housing units. If it outgrows that, then I have a dormitory, and while that wouldn’t be ideal, we’ll have more room.”

For the time being, Hardinger said Wednesday afternoon, all people being brought into the detention center are screened for symptoms, and if they appear they could be at risk, they are checked by jail medical staff. If medical staff are concerned the person could have COVID-19, he said, “That person needs to go the the hospital. We are going to try to avoid bringing them in if they may be a carrier.”

However, detention center medical staff do not have the ability to test definitively for COVID-19.

“I wish we had the test kits; I am sure a lot of people do,” Hardinger said.

While people are still being arrested, Hardinger said he hopes that will slow down. At DeWees’ direction he has begun an assessment of all inmates to see who could be released early, or released to home confinement. That’s a discussion Harginger said may sometimes involve the court with jurisdiction over a particular inmate’s case.

“We are looking at people medically at risk, because we do have a lot of inmates who have ailments. Especially people who have respiratory or cardiac issues,” he said. “We will probably be making some calls tomorrow about that.”

Hardinger said he is also aware of the psychological impact this extra isolation can have on inmates, and is taking steps to mitigate it, such as allowing more phone calls, and even covering the costs for those without money to place them.

“We have cut off their visiting — that’s a very important thing for people who are incarcerated,” he said.

If things do get bad, the detention center is prepared to work with minimal staffing, similar to how they would operate during a blizzard, according to Hardinger.

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“We know we can drop below our normal minimum because we have stopped all nonessential programs,” he said. “If we have to operate the kitchen with corrections people we can do that. I make a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

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State’s attorney limits contact

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland ordered all courts to close to the public on an emergency basis starting March 16, but the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office has been limiting staff’s contact with the public and their co-workers since March 12.

Brian DeLeonardo, state’s attorney, said his staff of 50 people has been working in teams since then to ensure that core operations could continue if someone fell ill. Everyone who can work remotely is doing so.

“If I have everyone in the office, then we could run into a situation where everyone is compromised,” he said.

DeLeonardo and three executive attorneys are handling essential matters such as bail reviews, working in shifts of two and keeping their distance when they have to be in the office at the same time. DeLeonardo handled three bail reviews on Tuesday before 3 p.m., he said.

He said their last jury trial, at least until April 3, was March 13. Everything that isn’t deemed essential by the chief judge is on hold.

“This is essentially a good cause postponement," DeLeonardo said.

Three staff members have come in to handle must-do tasks such as mail, scanning charging documents from police and forwarding voicemails to people working from home, according to DeLeonardo.

He said people can still call the office at 410-386-2671, but they will be met with a voicemail explaining that the office is closed to the public and will be asked to leave a message for the person they are trying to reach. Staff will return calls as voicemails are forwarded to them, DeLeonardo said, and email is still a viable option to reach people.

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