Vegas sheriff releasing hundreds of jail inmates after COVID-19 turns up in detention center
A Clark County judge has granted Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s request to reduce the population within his jurisdiction’s jails by 10 percent, after four inmates tested positive and the sheriff wrote that “the ripple effect of [a COVID-19] outbreak in the jail will endanger everyone in the community.”
Judge Linda Bell’s order, dated Thursday, gives Lombardo the latitude to release people who are serving time for a technical violation of their terms of probation (one that did not result in a new crime, such as failing to meet a curfew) and those who have already served at least 75 percent of their sentence. It also authorizes the release of inmates who are high-risk for developing COVID-19 because they are over the age of 65 or have an underlying health issue.
The order excludes the release of people who are serving time for a violent crime or for driving under the influence.
“The ability to reduce the jail population in these ways will assist the Sheriff in his responsibilities to the health and safety of the inmates,” Bell wrote. “At the same time, both the Sheriff and I recognize the priority of keeping our community safe and decisions about the release of inmates must take into consideration any potential risk of harm to the community.”
At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Metro officials said they started releasing the inmates on Thursday night and expected to release the full cohort of up to about 290 people by later Friday. The inmates who are released will not be required to pay bail, authorities said, and their release will be permanent, meaning they will not have to report back to the jail later, such as when the 30-day order lapses.
Bell noted that sentenced inmates could be supervised electronically such as by GPS. A lobbyist for Metro indicated at a meeting of the Nevada Sentencing Commission on Monday that more than 800 inmates were on house arrest.
Metro officials said Friday that some of those released will be subject to house arrest but not the majority. Asked about whether inmates would have a place to go — an objection raised by opponents of early jail or prison releases — Assistant Sheriff Chris Jones said Metro would ensure they do.
"We have programs in place as it stands, long before this issue came up, so we will continue to work within those programs to make sure that people who are being released have somewhere to go,” he said.
Lombardo’s request and order came the day after the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which runs the Clark County Detention Center, revealed that four inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-March — all of whom had been in the same housing module. That included one 31-year-old inmate who was admitted to University Medical Center for hospitalization on Sunday.
Those inmates are the first reported at correctional facilities within Nevada to test positive for the virus.
Lombardo’s filing indicated that two of the inmates who tested positive are in negative airflow isolation rooms, but the department only has 10 of those rooms. He also revealed that six commissioned staff had tested positive for COVID-19, 26 jail staff are in quarantine and 17 are in isolation.
“A widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail would risk the lives of jail staff and their families, as well as the inmates, and present an additional burden to area hospitals and medical community,” Metro said in the request. “After balancing the risks, the Sheriff believes at this time that an immediate reduction in the size of the jail population by up to 10 percent is critical, as this will allow for further social distancing to minimize potential for the spread of COVID-19.”
Officials with the agency noted that they had already reduced the population of the two jails it operates, and they have about 2,900 inmates while sleeping capacity is nearly 4,200. But the order noted that Lombardo needed to reduce the population further to ensure health and safety.
“It was not an easy decision to reduce the inmate population. As sheriff, my greatest concern is for the safety of the community,” he said at the news conference. “The pandemic has presented a situation where I had to balance public safety and the health of LVMPD personnel as well as the inmates.”
The news was welcome for Jennifer Gomez, whose husband Victor has been in the Clark County Detention Center since December awaiting his day in court on a grand jury indictment. Although she hasn’t heard whether he will be eligible for release, he takes medication to control his high blood pressure and seizures.
“I’m happy that there’s some efforts in progress, but we really need to get a better grip on the procedures on the inside,” she said.
Her husband has reported inadequate sanitation procedures and said that while inmates were provided masks to wear this week, they must reuse the same mask day after day. In their phone calls, Victor Gomez has told his wife he’s trying to remain positive but is scared of contracting the disease.
“We are freaked out,” Jennifer Gomez said. “Not only is it our loved ones but these are still people. Yeah, you messed up, but you don’t deserve to be suffering and not able to protect yourself.”
Updated at 1:38 p.m. on April 17, 2020 to add comment from Jennifer Gomez and additional details from court filings, and at 2:58 p.m. to add details from press conference.