Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, or perhaps due to it, the inmate population at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center dropped recently to its lowest level since 2002.
After a circuit judge took 104 guilty pleas over closed circuit, the jail population dipped to a little over 490, far fewer than the 750 average they usually have, according to 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.
He reasons that some magistrates may have lowered their bonds to keep people out of jail, or that the answer could be as simple as fewer people being arrested.
“I don’t think there’s nearly as many arrests just by looking at the jail intake,” he said, adding that the daily intake normally averages about 25 or 30, and now it’s running about one-third of that.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Tom Fox, a past director at the JRLDC and overseer of the jail for the Horry County Sheriff’s Office, said fewer arrests is not an accident.
Fox says area sheriffs asked local police chiefs to help them hold down bookings.
Also, he said, “Well, crime is really down. It really is because people are not out…”
Almost as in a curfew situation, police stop people who are driving around and remind them that they really should be at home.
They are also writing courtesy summons for some incidents that, in the past, might have gotten them a trip to jail.
Charges of serious offenses are still landing people in jail, he said.
Fewer inmates is a good thing for the jail workers because, with concerns about spreading the virus, intake at the jail requires much more time than usual.
Fox said early on they actually planned well for the virus outbreak. They immediately adopted all of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention precautions.
The jail has medical staff onsite day and night everyday.
When they see any symptoms of illness they deal with it immediately.
And they were forced to deal with one positive case. Fox said an employee, who worked in the jail’s laundry, tested positive for the virus after having close contact with a relative who tested positive, so he, a co-worker and all inmates who had contact with them were isolated in place. They checked all of their temperatures twice a day for 14 days and nobody had any sign of symptoms, so they went back to work.
The employee has recovered fully with almost three weeks of down time passed. No one else at the jail has shown any signs of the virus.
“That’s what we planned for. We knew that either a staff member or inmate would get it, so that’s how we planned for it,” Fox said.
Now everyone who comes into the jail must have his or her temperature checked and must answer CDC screening questions. Anyone who answers “yes” to any of the questions is placed in a holding cell for future observation. Inmates who come in on the same day are all put into the same cellblock. They are screened daily and are moved together each day for 13 days before they receive a final screening and are released into the general population.
He wants to ensure families and friends of inmates that they’re working to keep them safe.
“We’re taking all the precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. We have the same concerns they have. We don’t want an outbreak. We don’t want our staff to get infected or their families or friends to be infected,” he said.
He believes the jail is now one of the safest places a person can be other than at their own home.
One of the things responsible for the lower inmate population was a three-day session of guilty pleas held before Circuit Judge Steven John that resulted in moving 104 inmates out of the jail.
Richardson said the inmates who pleaded were charged primarily with minor crimes and were all released from the JRLDC, some to home and several to state prison.
To handle these pleas, the inmates were placed in front of a closed circuit television, which was already being used for municipal bond hearings, including in the Conway Municipal Court.
In the recent court session, the Judge took his place at the bench in a courtroom in the Horry County Government and Justice Center. The prosecutors and defense attorneys sat at their regular tables in the courtroom. If the defendant needed to speak with his attorney, he was allowed to speak with him on a telephone.
“If they needed to talk in private with their attorney, it would be just like whispering to them in front of the court. We sort of thought through all of the things that might come up,” the Solicitor said.
Under normal circumstances Richardson said they probably would have moved about 200 cases during that term of court, but during this session they dealt only with people who were in jail.
Richardson said there were some bumps in the process, but there was really nothing difficult about it.
Technical difficulties were minor and slowed the process a little, but that was because they had to bring inmates up in smaller groups instead of bringing everybody at the same time.
The circuit court’s load has also been cut by the Transfer Court, which allows magistrates to give sentences of up to one year or a fine of up to $5,000. This has relieved the circuit court of some minor crimes, things like petit larceny, possession of cocaine or heroin and shoplifting.
“…but that’s all done by video if they’re out at the jail, so we kind of had it in our back pocket,” Richardson said, but they were not using it much.
Now, because of COVID-19, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, including the public defender, were all onboard to use the video system, according to Richardson.
“I think it would be best described as making the best out of a bad situation. Productivity wasn’t what we’ve sort of grown accustomed to, but we were able to adapt and do the best we could with a bad situation. It wasn’t flawless, but it was pretty good…” he said.
Richardson said attorneys can still go to the jail and talk with their clients through Plexiglas, but some have become accustomed to coming to the courthouse and talking with their clients in closer contact there, but right now that isn’t an option.
“For the most part it was people that have sat out there for two or three months, and it was sentencing like 90 days or probation…There were some people that went to prison. I can’t remember their names or what they had done, but there were a few that went to prison,” Richardson said.
That brings up another problem for the local courts. Richardson said state officials have asked them to hold off on sending inmates to the state’s prisons because they have had a report of COVID-19 at the Reception and Evaluation Center at the Kirkland Correctional Institution.
Conway Police Chief Dale Long said his department has followed the new guidelines for taking people to jail, but he said emphatically, “Crime is down.”
In fact, the number of arrests was down about one-third in Conway’s final tally for March. He doesn’t know yet what April’s numbers will be.
However, he said, the numbers are likely to start rising again as people are beginning to venture out onto the streets instead of staying in.
“I see it probably starting to kick back up now simply because we have such a short attention span,” he said, adding that it was yesterday’s news that the coronavirus was killing people, but in the past two weeks police have seen more people becoming relaxed about the threat.
He does not believe the threat has passed.
Whether or not they take people to jail now all comes down to the offense they’re charged with. Domestic violence will win them a ticket to jail and, of course, they can’t let drunken drivers back out on the road, Long said.
However, things like shoplifting, trespassing and loitering have become more discretionary.
He foresees some massive court schedules probably in June when he expects two to three times as many cases as they normally have.
As for juveniles, Long said the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice is still another group that has asked law enforcement officials not to send any more people than necessary to Columbia.
Long isn’t ready to predict any possible changes that these new practices might make in the future of his department.
He believes there are some things that they may be able to continue to use a little more discretion about that will keep people out of jail, but says it’s all going to depend on the final data.
He doesn’t particularly like taking everybody to jail, pointing out that it costs the city money every time they take someone there.
Richardson is also assessing the future.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get up and really going like we were because, you know, when this is over you’re going to have people trying to go back to work,” Richardson said, adding that could cut the number of people who are willing to serve on juries.
Richardson is expecting more ripple effects from the virus after it’s passed.
“There’s going to be some ripple effects. I think instead of all of us grasping our chests and having a heart attack, we’re just going to have to…move cautiously understanding that none of us have all the answers,” he said.