As the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a reality, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith and Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano met and came up with a proactive plan to house up to infected 33 inmates. The number seemed high when there was one inmate with the virus 45 days ago.

Today, not only have 33 inmates and officers in Smith County alone tested positive for the virus, the counties are facing staffing issues and resistance from the state health services department to visit.

Despite preventive measures and reducing the inmate populations, the coronavirus has the potential to quickly overwhelm the two county jails.

Smith said the speed at which the virus spreads in confined spaces and the lack of resources from the state and federal governments to test prisoners for COVID-19 and isolate those who are sick have created a strain at the Smith County Jail.

As of Saturday, Smith County Jail facilities have one inmate COVID-19 related death as well as 10 inmates and 20 detention officers who actively have coronavirus, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Three inmates have pending test results. Four detention officers are quarantined and 205 inmates are quarantined, according to the jail commission.

This count does not include inmates and employees who have recovered. Smith said Friday two inmates and one detention officer from the Smith County North Jail (Low Risk Facility) have recovered.

All inmates are from the North Jail and 18 of the detention officers work in the North Jail and one works in the Central Jail in downtown Tyler. The Central Jail employee is the spouse of a North Jail employee, according to Smith as of Friday.

Testing

The Smith County Sheriff’s Office has reached out for state assistance to test all inmates and employees at both of its jails. Smith said getting those tests administered have so far been unsuccessful.

“You have jails throughout the state that have positive (COVID-19) inmates that they don’t know about,” Smith said. “For us to get out in front of this and cut the ones out of the (general jail population) group that are infected and reinfecting, we’ve got to know No. 1 if they’ve got the virus.”

Smith and Gregg counties are No. 1 and 2 on the state’s list to have all inmates and jail staff tested for the contagious virus, he added. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards is also heavily involved in the testing inmates for COVID-19.

A disturbing consequence in delaying the testing of inmates and jail staff members is the fact that many could have the virus but be asymptomatic and spreading it without anyone knowing it, Smith explained.

“It kind of makes you feel helpless because. as I’ve said earlier, until we’re able to get timely tests and results you’re beating your head against the wall. You’re reinfecting people because you have people that are walking around asymptomatic that are reinfecting until we can, as I put it, take the cattle out of the herd,” Smith said. “There’s no way you’ll ever have a healthy side and an infected side.”

Getting state health department workers to come to Smith County Jail to help prevent the spread of the virus has been challenging as well.

At first, the Texas Department of State Health Services told the sheriff’s office that officials would be at the Smith County Jail within 100 hours after an initial inquiry was made. But they did not come, Smith said.

Smith said he was told that a second group from DSHS that was supposed to come couldn’t do so because they had not yet received the proper training to administer tests.

“So that’s the frustration I’ve had with the system. Don’t tell me you can do something if you can’t do it number one,” he said. “But when you’re able to do it, we need help.”

More than a month after an inmate in the Smith County Jail first showed signs of being infected with COVID-19, the Texas Division of Emergency Management representatives are working with Smith and other county officials on a plan to soon have inmates tested.

These COVID-19 tests might be administered by inmates on themselves under supervision of others. There are still unanswered questions on how the testing process will be carried out, Smith said.

Based on observations during a recent visit to the Central Jail, Smith said most inmates are calm despite the possibility of an outbreak of COVID-19 and look forward to being tested.

“They’re holding up very well under the circumstances of being confined without being able to get out and then having the virus going around,” he said. “You expect a lot of panic going around, but there’s none of that going around whatsoever, but they are looking forward to being tested for the most part.”

Impact on Staffing

Smith said because of the number of employees missing work because they tested positive for COVID-19 and self-quarantined, and 15 prior jailer position openings that are still not filled, the sheriff’s office is forced to work with a bare bones staff in the jails.

Some county corrections officers who have been trained to work inside the jails but had been on other assignments, such as security at Smith County Courthouse, are being used back in the jails to make up for the loss of sick jailers.

“We’re already 20 detention officers short before this happened and then you take 18 positive and then another 17 or 18 quarantined. I had to pull seven people off patrol to backfill the courthouse, annex and the Cotton Belt building and the probation,” he said. “That’s as deep as I could cut into the law enforcement side of the house.”

Smith has been in constant contact with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards because Smith County is having difficulties meeting the required 1 to 48 ratio of jailers to inmates.

“Nobody in the 254 counties (in Texas) has had to do that (get permission to temporarily not maintain the ratio) yet, but we’re getting dangerously close to having to do that,” he said.

Even during the coronavirus outbreak, jailers still are mandated by the state to regularly check on inmates and even more closely monitor inmates placed on a suicide watch.

“There’s a lot of working parts in the jail that the general public has no idea what has to happen in a jail at any given shift and at any given time,” Smith said.

The Tyler Paper has reached out to TCJS for additional information about their work with counties on COVID-19 precautions but had not received a response as of Friday.

Partnership in Smith and Gregg County Jails

In anticipation that COVID-19 could spread rapidly through inmate populations, Cerliano and Smith entered a joint agreement that established protocols of what would happen if a jail inmate in either county tested positive for COVID-19.

The joint agreement set out what would happen when the first inmates became sick and then additional procedures if or when more and more inmates contracted the virus. The plan was isolate any sick inmates to try to halt spread among inmates.

As outlined in the plan, the first two inmates that had COVID-19 were to be housed in special negative pressure cells located in Smith County.

On April 2, a Gregg County inmate with the coronavirus was moved to one of the cells. In late April, two Smith County North Jail inmates tested positive.

Once the special cells in Smith County were filled, the growing number of inmates with the virus then began to be placed in the Marvin A. Smith Unit in Kilgore, which was set up to serve as a medical unit.

The Marvin A. Smith Unit can accommodate as up to four female inmates and 27 male inmates with COVID-19. Cerliano said the separate portion of the jail houses trusties who have volunteered to assist with operations, like cleaning.

The staff at Marvin A. Smith includes jailers from both counties and nurse who is normally assigned to work in the Gregg County Jail. Inmates also receive healthcare from Dr. Gary White, who serves as the doctor on call to treat inmates in both county jails.

“He’s able to have the same continuity of care for both Smith County and Gregg County inmates,” Cerliano said.

If a greater level of health care is needed, inmates are transferred from Marvin A. Smith Unit to a hospital in either Tyler or Longview, Cerliano said.

When transferring inmates to the Marvin A. Smith Unit, detention officers and inmates are required to wear personal protective equipment and the vehicle that is used is decontaminated before it’s used again, Smith said.

Smith said detention officers recently transferred an inmate to Marvin A. Smith and two inmates who had recovered from COVID-19 while incarcerated there back to Smith County.

“The simple thing to do would be to drop the one off and put the other two in the vehicle and bring them back. Well, we couldn’t do that,” he said.

The sheriff’s office used two vehicles, one to bring the inmate to the unit and a separate one to bring the recovered inmates back to Smith County.

After receiving two negative tests for COVID-19, inmates from Smith County return from the Marvin Unit and are placed back in the Smith County Jail population. Smith said jail supervisors are not taking for granted that those who have been infected will not be infected again.

“It’s not a known fact at this point if people will be reinfected or not yet,” Smith said.

After the eventual mass testing of Gregg and Smith inmates, Smith said he expects Marvin A. Smith will reach capacity. Once that happens, a portion of the Smith County North Jail will be used to house infected inmates.

Smith also plans to have asymptomatic employees with COVID-19 in that part of the North Jail to deal with these inmates.

Preventive Measures

Smith said that the sheriff’s office continues to take many steps to protect detention officers from catching COVID-19 and unintentionally spreading it others.

Smith has stopped moving jailers between the central and north jails and is keeping employees in the same area within their assigned facility

To reduce the jail population, some people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor crimes are being released on personal recognizance bonds, and some are receiving citations and a future court date instead of being held in jail waiting for their case to move through the court system.

Smith said those accused or found guilty of committing serious drug offenses are not being released because these crimes often cause violence.

“I’m not talking about a mere possession of marijuana. I’m talking about the distribution or manufacturing of a penalty group one or two drug, whether it be cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine or whatever, it is classified as a violent crime,” Smith said.

Smith said giving a citation and court date for drug possession offenders will not continue in Smith County after the worst of the pandemic passes because that practice could become a slippery slope.

“I don’t think the conservative Smith County is ready for it, and I’m not ready for it,” he said.

Inmates, judges, attorneys and prosecutors have turned to using Zoom video conference meetings. These methods began to be used after the Texas Supreme Court canceled in-person court activities until June 1.

“That has allowed the decline of the pre-trial felonies and misdemeanors tremendously,” Smith said. “That’s the only good thing I’ve seen about this pandemic.”

Before being released into the general jail population, new inmates are held for 14 days in a separate area for quarantine to ensure they do not have COVID-19.

To reduce the possibility of someone infected by COVID-19 coming into the jail to visit an inmate, visitation has been stopped. Inmates have been given electronic tablets to hold live video visits with those outside the jail.

To lower their exposure to COVID-19, deputies use personal protective equipment and dispatchers ask questions about whether those seeking the help of deputies are showing coronavirus symptoms before deputies respond to the scene.

As county jails and prisons across the state fight COVID-19, Smith said he’s appreciative of social distancing and health guidelines from Gov. Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump.

“It’s very unfortunate for the economy and I do think quite frankly it is time to get back to work, but we’ve got to get back to work and be cognizant that we still need social distance, we still need to wash our hands and things of that nature,” Smith said. “I think it was prudent and very much the right thing to do for the governor and president to make those preparations for the worst case scenario. I absolutely support 100% of what they did because I’m living within a closed society, being in the jails we have where they can’t social distance or take precautionary measures to keep from getting it.”

Multimedia Journalist

I came to the Tyler Morning Telegraph in September 2019. I report on crime, courts, breaking news and various events in Tyler and East Texas.