MERCER – Officials at Mercer County Jail are preparing for a return to normal operations after months under restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the jail is at a point now where we can safely say we need to make adjustments and transition back into this at a slow pace,” Warden Erna Craig told to the Mercer County prison board last week. “It’s inevitable that, hopefully, this pandemic is winding down.”
During the pandemic, Craig said inmate activity was restricted, with inmates locked in their cells 20 hours a day.
“That’s pretty difficult for them to handle, and they’ve been remarkable. We’ve had no problems with our inmate population,” Craig said. “We’re going to begin to allow the housing units to be out for the better part of a day.”
Mask-wearing will continue to be required, but inmates will be allowed to participate in social activities at common areas.
During the pandemic, inmates were given electronic tablets to have virtual visits with family and friends and to play games and read books during their down time.
Virtual visiting by family and is likely to continue, but Craig said she is notifying defense attorneys, public defenders, investigators, parole officers, police and bail bond agents that they will be allowed into the jail to meet with inmates, with mask-wearing enforced.
“I think it’s important they get in there and start interacting with the inmate population,” Craig said.
During the pandemic, inmates who worked in the kitchen or on the cleaning crew were housed in the jail’s gymnasium. Those inmates have been moved back into the housing units.
The jail’s dentist, who had been off since the pandemic started, was brought back, and programs that were suspended will resume.
New inmates will be quarantined for seven days, a decrease from 14 during the pandemic. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will still be quarantined for 21 days.
One thing that won’t change is the jail’s housing guidelines. In response to the pandemic, Craig said police and the district attorney’s office have followed restrictive guidelines resulting in fewer suspects being held in jail while awaiting trial. Those guidelines will remain in effect for now.
The jail population last week was 162, with more than 300 available beds.
“If we follow the guidelines with the police and the courts, then we should be able to be pretty successful in transitioning back to normal operations,” Craig said. “As long as we can maintain our quarantine. That’s what is important.”
Another program — prisoners participating in hearings by video — isn’t going to change in the near future. Court and jail officials are pleased with the video hearing process, Craig said.
Between video hearings and visitor restrictions, she said contraband smuggled into the jail, which had been a severe concern, has declined.
“We have seen a lot of positive results from handling the hearings at the jail under the video system,” Craig said. “We remark every day at how little contraband is making its way into the jail now.”
“We ask the courts if they would consider utilizing the video arraignment system that we have at the jail,” Craig said.
Mercer County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Robert G. Yeatts said his plan is to keep using video hearings when possible.
“The pandemic emergency declaration is over so if someone insists they want to be present, they’re going to be present,” Yeatts said. “We’re trying to discourage that.”
Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell said he doesn’t want the jail to resume normal operations too quickly. With the pandemic still active, he expressed concern that acting too fast could cause an outbreak.
“I think we need to be careful with those who are at higher risk,” McConnell said. “It’s too early to open doors. Our jail might have been one of the safest places to be in the county.”
Craig assured McConnell that the transition will not be too fast.
“We intend to be very careful and very slow back to normal,” Craig said.
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