‘They’re Going to Eat Them’: These Rogue Sheriffs Won’t Even Give Their Prisoners Masks
The Daily Beast contacted 35 sheriff’s offices where leaders have vocally opposed mask mandates. Of the respondents, only four have enforced mask policies at detention centers.
More than 1,600 inmates across the U.S. have died from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, but even that hasn’t stopped some sheriffs from flagrantly flouting public health guidelines—and putting sitting-duck prisoners at risk of serious illness or death—by refusing to hand out masks in their detention centers.
The Daily Beast reached out to 35 sheriff’s offices across the country whose leaders have vocally opposed mask mandates. Of the 16 who responded, only four have enforced mask policies. Three sheriff’s officials said they are not handing out masks at all, while four said they refuse to force prisoners to wear them. The rest declined to comment.
According to The Marshall Project, at least 249,883 people in America’s prisons and jails have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. The COVID-19 case rate among the inmate population is approximately four times higher in federal and state prisons than in the rest of the United States—and twice as deadly. And despite cramped conditions and high rates of pre-existing health conditions among the 1.3 million currently incarcerated, detention centers aren’t reducing their populations enough to curtail the spread of the virus.
Detainees at the Rockingham County Detention Center near Durham, North Carolina, don’t even have access to protective gear, including masks. In Alabama, one sheriff’s office has come up with a unique excuse to avoid protecting inmates by handing out masks—insisting inmates at Madison County Jail are simply “going to eat them.” The same indifference to inmate safety is evident at Flagler County Jail in Florida, where inmates are also denied masks unless they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Rogues who refuse to play ball with officials desperate to control infections by enforcing mask mandates on the general public are by now well-known. But for the local sheriff departments who told The Daily Beast that mask policies have been implemented in their jails, the reason is simple: Detention centers are being overrun by COVID-19 amid a massive nationwide surge. And when they aren’t giving bizarre reasons for denying their inmates masks, some of the same law-enforcement officials who have spoken out against mask mandates are imposing them on their own detainees.
“I am not the mask police and I am not going to enforce any curfews or mask use. Hell, I had 14 people at my house for Thanksgiving so I would have had to call the police at myself,” Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones told The Daily Beast. “But even I demand masks in my jail because, as I am sure you are aware, COVID-19 is kicking our ass here in Ohio.”
Even in Colorado’s El Paso County, home to one of the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks—where Sheriff Bill Elder refused to cite residents flouting the governor’s mask mandate—officials told The Daily Beast they finally began providing cloth masks to inmates in November.
On Tuesday, inmates at the El Paso County Jail sued Elder, alleging their lives were being put at risk during the pandemic after two-thirds of the facility’s population tested positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the ACLU, described failures in quarantine policies and medical care for COVID-19 inmates—and how some, desperate for face coverings, would make their own out of bedsheets and underwear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all correctional and detention facilities implement mask use “in public settings where social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Additionally, the agency insists routinely laundered masks should also be provided “at no cost to incarcerated/detained individuals” and that detention centers should explain the importance of face coverings.
Law enforcement officials against mask use for inmates are now feeling pressure from state and public health officials, who are desperately looking to local law enforcement to uphold restrictions amid an out-of-control outbreak. The virus has also had a devastating effect on prison staff, as approximately 62,171 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 108 have died since the start of the pandemic, according to the Marshall Project.
Thomas Abt, the director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast that more hardline restrictions should be put in place in jails and prisons for the safety of both inmates and staffers.
“Given the proven effectiveness of masking and the heightened risks associated with jails and prisons, the Commission strongly recommends universal masking for all correctional staff and impacted populations when indoors and in close contact with others,” Abt said.
Rockingham County Detention Center in North Carolina
In North Carolina’s deep-red Rockingham County, the sheriff’s office insists a mask mandate for inmates is unnecessary since none of the facility’s 185 inmates have tested positive for the deadly virus to date.
“Inmates of the Rockingham County Detention Center are not required to wear masks, nor are they provided masks,” Rockingham County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Suthard told The Daily Beast. “There are isolation protocols in place and medical screenings for new detainees upon entry and if any inmate should potentially have a possible exposure or display symptoms.”
In June, Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page—who previously referred to the governor’s statewide mask mandate as “unenforceable”—insisted deputies “will NOT be citing or arresting individuals for not following the face-mask mandate” for residents as directed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. He also signed a resolution from the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association urging Cooper to allow indoor worship services with restrictions “similar to those allowing local retail businesses to operate.”
Last month, Page tested positive for COVID-19. Suthard, however, insisted that Page “never stated he does not believe in enforcement of the governor’s individual mask mandate.”
“Because of that wording within the governor’s own executive order at the time, our attorneys advised us that a mask mandate on an individual level was unenforceable,” he noted, adding that Page wears masks and believes in voluntary compliance through education.
Even so, a mask mandate still has not been implemented at the Rockingham County Detention Center and inmates are not even provided face coverings.
“We have based our COVID-related protocols on the recommendations of the CDC, our state and local health and human services departments, and our legal department,” Suthard insisted.
Flagler County Jail in Florida
A few states away, in Flagler County, Florida, a local sheriff is adamant that a mask mandate would be “overly burdensome to enforce.”
In a July open letter to residents in Flagler, Sheriff Rick Staly insisted that making his deputies enforce a mask order would only exacerbate tensions between law enforcement and the community—and even questioned the validity of the CDC’s guidelines on face coverings.
“First, let’s remember that when the pandemic started the CDC said face masks were not necessary. Then later it was necessary for older residents and now the CDC recommends wearing by everyone,” Staly wrote.
A spokesperson for Flagler County Jail said inmates can’t even choose whether they want to wear masks—because they aren’t given face coverings at all. The spokesperson added that jail employees, deputies, and visitors are required to wear masks while interacting with inmates.
Prisoners are only provided masks when they are COVID-19 positive, exhibiting severe symptoms, or have been exposed to someone with the deadly virus.
“Upon negative test and/or 14 days without symptom, they are eligible for housing and the masks are retrieved,” the spokesperson said.
Marion County Jail in Florida
About an hour west, in Marion County, Florida, the local sheriff is open about his anti-mask views.
In an Aug. 11 email to the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Billy Woods said “masks will not be worn” by deputies on duty (with some exceptions during visits to courthouses, jails, and public schools). He also barred the protective gear for visitors to his office, even as the state was experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus.
“In light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby,” Woods wrote in the email viewed by The Daily Beast.
That sentiment, according to Marion County Sheriff Sgt. Paul Bloom, has trickled down to the Marion County Jail—where inmates are not forced to wear masks despite screenings and education about the effects of COVID-19. The sheriff’s department said inmates are provided masks.
“Most inmates refuse to wear the masks or be tested for COVID,” Marion County Sheriff Sgt. Paul Bloom insisted. “For some, it is a priority, but for others, it doesn’t matter. We cannot force masks.”
The detention center, which houses 1,500 inmates, has had a consistent 1 percent COVID test-positivity rate over the last few months.
“We can only continue to utilize strict cleaning methods and make the masks available for them if they choose,” Bloom said, stressing “our positivity rates in the jail have been lower than they are in the general public in Florida.”
“In short, inmates with COVID are isolated together from those without COVID, and masks are made available to inmates that want or feel that they need them,” he added.
Madison County Jail in Alabama
For Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in infectious diseases, the congregate settings of prisons make them so vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks that masks should be mandatory.
“Prisons are hot spots where we have seen cases occur en masse, so I do think that having a face-covering policy that is very strict is essential,” Adalja told The Daily Beast. “There should be a pretty strict mandate or else prisoners are going to have to be confined in order to really stop the spread. Prison staff also don’t often wear masks as well.”
Adalja said the argument that masks pose a safety threat—because a metal nose piece could be used as a weapon—is “completely irresponsible.”
That’s the excuse used by officials at the Madison County Jail in Alabama, where inmates are banned from wearing face coverings despite the county’s mandatory mask-wearing order.
“You give them face masks [with] a nose piece—with those metal pieces in them—they’re going to eat them,” a sheriff’s spokesperson claimed. “They’re going to swallow them.”
According to the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, inmates could harm themselves or others with masks—either with the metal piece or by tying the cloth pieces together to make ropes.
Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner has also spoken out publicly against the county’s mask mandate, insisting he will not arrest residents who violate the order.
“Our main act of enforcement will be to educate the citizens about [COVID-19] and encourage any citizens of Madison County that [wearing a mask in public] is the right thing to do,” Turner said in a June video statement.
Instead of implementing a mask mandate, Madison County Jail has prohibited nonessential personnel and increased sanitation protocols. According to the Madison County Health Department, while the county-wide order requires mask use in public, it does not apply to correction centers because they have “their own guidance.”
Adalja, however, said the excuses are unjustifiable and can be easily solved with face shields.
“If prisons don’t want to use face masks for security reasons, fine—use face shields. Make masks mandatory for prison staff, provide more outlets for social distancing,” Adalja said, adding that “if you allow widespread infections in jails, you put local hospitals into crisis.”
“Giving inmates access to masks is the easiest way to mitigate the spread. Not doing so is just irresponsible and will lead to more unnecessary deaths,” he added.
Butler County Jail in Ohio
Even Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, one of the most vocal anti-mask sheriffs in the country, believes a mandate should be in place for those in lockup.
“For me and my county jail—it’s a mask mandate,” Jones told The Daily Beast.
The sentiment is shocking considering the Ohio Republican—known for declaring “I don’t kneel for any cause” during the nationwide protests against police brutality—has slammed Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask mandate on national television several times. He has also stressed he is not going to do anything to help enforce the COVID-19 restriction, telling The Daily Beast “the community is tired and worn out over these mandates.” (To date, Ohio residents have to wear a mask inside public areas and outdoors where social distancing is impossible.)
“I’m just a poor sheriff trying to keep everyone healthy and everyone working. But the government has overreached here in Ohio. And I am the government,” Jones said. “So I refuse to enforce any curfews or mask use or issue citations.”
Despite his controversial view on face coverings—insisting that “doctors have been all over the place with masks; I have no idea what to believe anymore”—Jones admits there is no harm in having a mask mandate at Butler County Jail, which has seen several coronavirus outbreaks, including one that wiped out 10 percent of the facility’s staff.
“The way we do it here, every prisoner has two cloth masks they can clean themselves. If they come out of their cell, they are supposed to have their mask on,” Jones said, adding that cleanings have also increased at the site after several COVID-10 outbreaks. “We also reduce the number of jail employees while inmates are out to ensure they don’t catch anything.”
Jones added that employees “have to have a mask on” and that one of the three buildings at Butler County Jail is now dedicated to COVID-19-positive inmates.
The Butler County Jail is one of several local detention centers in the state banned from transporting inmates to state facilities because of its high number of COVID-positive inmates. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction confirmed to The Daily Beast the county jail is “not currently permitted to send us incarcerated adults” after shipping so many COVID-19 inmates to state facilities.
For Jones, getting put on the state prison system’s “naughty list” was a wake-up call, showing him the importance of masks for inmates and the true danger of COVID-19. While he insists he’s still not sure whether masks help curtail the spread, the sheriff admitted he wears a mask and encourages his family members to do the same.
“All I know is, even if we find out in a few years the masks were worthless, there is no harm in wearing it now,” Jones said. “People should have the choice. And in jail, where I get to make the choices, inmates wear masks.”