FARGO — The Cass County Jail could release low-risk inmates to make room at its facility amid a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

The jail in Fargo has already implemented several measures to prevent its staff and 276 inmates from coming in contact with the virus, Sheriff Jesse Jahner said Monday, March 16, during a County Commission meeting. That includes limiting visitors into the jail, establishing a screening process for incoming inmates and postponing programs that allow inmates in and out of the facility.

The Cass County State’s Attorney's Office, district judges and jail have been in talks on how to not only limit the number of new inmates but seeing if low-risk inmates can be released, State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said.

“In the end, it comes down to sort of that old saying, which is figure out who you're mad at and figure out who you're scared of and keep your hands on the ones you're scared of,” Burdick said. “We'll be using that as a general rule of thumb" in examining the jail population.

County commissioners expressed concern about the jail filling up with inmates who go to state facilities. The jail has a maximum capacity of 348 inmates, with four cells that have negative-air systems that can be used for isolation.

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“If things get out of hand in the jail, you don't have any place to put people who might contaminate the rest of the population,” Commissioner Ken Pawluk said. “But if you were able to free that up by having some early releases, that would give you some breathing room so that you had more options than you have now.”

Commission Chair Chad Peterson said the jail is one of the county’s most important facilities, and it can’t afford to allow the coronavirus to get inside. “If our correctional officers get sick, they can’t perform their jobs either,” Peterson said.

Jahner said the jail has plans in place in case it needs to go into isolation or lockdown for quarantine.

It’s unclear how officials would decide which jail inmates are low-risk enough to be released into the general population.

“Those who are sentenced will be a case-by-case decision, with options for assignment to our community supervision unit, or possible court-approved sentencing adjustment,” Jail Administrator Andrew Frobig said. “The Sheriff’s Office will be reviewing and making recommendations in the coming days so the state’s attorney and judge can review and decide.”

Jahner noted some defendants may be allowed to be released on personal recognizance bond.

The county's discussion came less than a week after the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it would suspend all contact visitation at its facilities. Prisoners can still be reached by phone and email, DOCR spokeswoman Kayli Richards told The Forum Monday.

State facilities also have suspended new admissions until March 23, meaning people who are sentenced to prison time in North Dakota will have to stay at local jails until that measure is lifted, she said.

“We’re trying to restrict movement,” she said, adding that prisons will use a screening process once that measure has expired.

During a special meeting Friday, March 20, the North Dakota Parole Board plans to discuss releasing some inmates due to the pandemic, according to a meeting agenda. Reducing the prisons' population will provide additional space for isolation and quarantining new arrivals and those who may become sick, Richards said.

"We know that we will eventually have the virus in our facilities, and we also know that a number of our staff will be infected or will be out of the workplace due to lack of childcare or because staff are sick or are taking care of a sick family member," she said. "We are being proactive in reducing our numbers to lessen the impact on the safety of our facilities due to a reduction in workforce."

With the exception of unusual circumstances, the North Dakota Supreme Court on Monday ordered district courts to postpone jury trials through April 24 but has left the decision of holding hearings to local judges.

The Forum contacted the Clay County Jail about its plans regarding the coronavirus, but did not receive a response as of publication time.

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