Frustration and fear are high at Weber County jail after 82 inmates test positive for coronavirus

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber County Sheriff Complex entrance Thursday, September 15 2011.

It was Wednesday afternoon when Weber County jail officials removed five or so men from the unit.

Mayra Cristobal’s husband was one of more than 30 inmates left behind, all of whom had been tested for the coronavirus two days prior.

As they took those few inmates out of their area, Cristobal’s husband had a realization: He and all those around him had the virus. He was right. Jail officials gathered the entire unit and announced the men had tested positive.

“There’s at least two of them who are really sick who are older,” Cristobal said. “He’s really worried about them. He’s scared.”

The jail unit was tested for COVID-19 after a sick federal inmate from Nevada was transferred to the Weber County jail. The federal inmate had told jailers he had a chronic cough. A few days later — after he had been mixed with the general population — his cough got worse and he sought medical help.

In total, the Weber County jail has reported 82 inmates have tested positive as of Thursday afternoon, the largest outbreak in a correctional facility in Utah. Jails and prisons have been hotbeds of the coronavirus elsewhere and correctional officials have been on high alert here.

While the federal inmate is the most likely cause for the Weber County jail outbreak, officers say it is possible that it also entered the jail in other ways as well.

For those behind bars, the outbreak is frustrating. They’re frightened. They can’t distance themselves from one another, and jail officials have kept those who have tested positive together because there is not enough space to give them individual cells to quarantine.

“As a parent, it’s scary,” said Joseph Gerstenberger, whose son is incarcerated. “This is the first person I personally know that has COVID and it’s my son. And it’s not because he went out without a mask or went out to bars or was partying or anything like that. He has no choice. I understand that he’s incarcerated for a reason, but what he did definitely shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

Gerstenberger said his son was caught with drugs in his car. He was supposed to be in federal prison by now, but his sentencing has been delayed until August.

Cristobal’s husband is also facing federal charges, and hasn’t had a court date in months because court operations essentially shut down in reaction to the pandemic.

So for now, these inmates are stuck in the Weber County jail, surrounded by dozens of other men who also have COVID-19. Gerstenberger said his 31-year-old son has told him they haven’t been able to launder their jail-provided cloth masks, and hand-washing is difficult because some of the plumbing doesn’t work. His lungs hurt, and he has a runny nose.

“I just want them to get the proper care they all need there,” the father said, “instead of just, ‘Here, stay on the floor together and see what happens.’”

Cristobal said her husband has been achy and his throat hurts.

Weber County Lt. Josh Marigoni said most of the infected inmates have shown no symptoms — which made it harder to identify that COVID-19 had been spreading in their facility.

Marigoni said they’re working to try to stop the contagion. They heightened their sanitation efforts several months ago, and then increased even more after that first inmate tested positive. They’ve also tried to limit their jail population, which usually hovers around 800 people. On Thursday, there were 624 people incarcerated there.

The jail holds a contract to house federal offenders, but Marigoni said they’ve pressed pause on that and won’t be accepting new federal inmates for now as they respond to the outbreak.

The lieutenant also said jail officials are working with the courts and the county attorney to try to release some inmates early or finding alternative ways for them to serve their sentences.

“I do want to let the community know we are not letting violent felons out,” he said. “It’s going to be a very selective process that goes into that.”

But family members of those inmates still at the jail worry that not enough is being done. They worry inmates could stay sick longer if they aren’t allowed to isolate away from other sick inmates, and say that the facility needs repairs so the inmates can try to keep clean.

“It’s got to be scary for them,” Gerstenberger said, “because they’re trapped there. It’s not like they can go somewhere and hide in their house and get over it.”