TUPELO • The Mississippi Department of Corrections temporarily suspended all visitation to state inmates Thursday, citing the threat of coronavirus. While most local officials are following suit, others are not ready to take such a hard stance.
Sheriffs from around Northeast Mississippi looked at their practices to decide whether to suspend visitation as well at county jail facilities. Chickasaw County Sheriff Jim Meyers and Marshall County Sheriff Kenny Dickerson halted visitation Thursday.
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar made the move Friday afternoon saying, “For the safety and health of our inmates and employees, all inmate visitation will be suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus situation.”
In Tishomingo County, Sheriff John Daugherty stopped all visitation at the jail, but people can still use video visitation online from their home.
In Corinth, Alcorn County Sheriff Ben Caldwell stopped all visitation at the regional jail where state inmates reside. He is still allowing visitation in the county jail since the inmates and visitors are not physically in the same room.
In the spirit of being abundantly cautious, Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan suspended visitation late Friday. In addition to visitation, he is looking at ways to keep out inmates who may be infected.
“We are currently working to gather as much information as possible to put protocols in place to screen new inmates as they come in,” Pollan said. “We appreciate the public’s cooperation in this matter.”
Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson has taken a similar stance. In addition to no visitation, incoming prisoners are questioned about exposure to the virus and body temperatures are logged when they arrive and when prisoners leave.
In county jails, family visitation is non-contact usually conducted through a sheet of glass or via a video monitor. As a rule, the only time inmates have physical contact with a visitor is when meeting with attorneys where confidentiality and the sharing of legal documents is required. And even that is granted on a case by case basis, said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson.
Since the inmate population has limited physical contact with the public, the chance of them catching coronavirus through visitation is small.
“All our visitation is through glass,” said Pollan. “The staff has to be in contact with the general public while checking folks in for visitation and that is the biggest concern.
“If one of the jail staff catches (coronavirus), it could spread to one of the prisoners. If it gets in the back, then pandemic wouldn’t be the word. It would be a disaster.”
Tolar has seen a reduced number of people at the jail complex in recent days but worries about his staff interacting with possibly infected members of the general public prompted him to suspend visitation.
In Lee County, it is pretty much business as usual. At the main facility, both non-contact and video visitation will remain on their normal schedule. Johnson said visitation and weekend passes for state Inmates housed at the Lee County Work Center have been suspended until further notice, based on a state directive.
On Thursday, MDOC suspended all visitation at facilities where state prisoners are held. Attorneys and essential visitors will still be allowed, but visitation areas must be sanitized after each visit.
Later the same day, the agency announced that it was suspending the transfer of inmates from county jails to state custody. When a local person is convicted of a felony in circuit court, MDOC has about a month to transfer the person from a county jail and assign them to a state prison.
“We acknowledge any inconveniences that inmate family members and others may experience from the temporary suspension of visitation,” said Deputy Commissioner Jeworski Mallett, who manages state, private, and regional prisons in the state. “However, these actions are necessary for public safety and protecting our inmates, their loved ones, and our staff.”