Coronavirus outbreak worsens at the Weber County jail

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

Ogden • She stood outside the Weber County attorney’s office in the sweltering heat for her brother. For all the inmates who were at the jail a few miles away, where there has been a quickly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Elizabeth Moreno said her 19-year-old brother, Raul, is one of 114 who have tested positive for COVID-19. He only has one kidney, she said, and she worries that he’s not getting proper medical care at the jail.

Her family wants him released — but for now, he’s stuck in jail facing a federal charge for having a gun and being in the country illegally. His case, like many others, has been delayed as coronavirus has essentially shut down court operations.

“They don’t know how much time they are going to be in there,” she said. “They are hopeless.”

Moreno was one of about 20 people who joined a protest Friday demanding that Weber County Attorney Chris Allred release more non-violent inmates from the jail so they aren’t exposed to the virus.

Community activist Malik Dayo told the small crowd that it’s something that should have been done weeks ago.

“There is no time to waste,” he said. “Each life is precious.”

The protest came as Weber County officials announced Friday that another 31 people who are incarcerated at the Weber County jail have tested positive for the coronavirus.

That brings the total number of infected inmates to 114, likely the largest outbreaks so far in a jail facility in Utah.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of both our inmates and employees,” Lt. Josh Marigoni said in a news release Friday. “Inmates that have tested positive are being isolated into single cells as much as possible and where not possible are being quarantined together with other positives.”

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.

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 additional ways.

Inmates and their family members are frustrated by the outbreak, and say they’re scared for those who are behind bars.

“It’s simply not possible to practice social distancing in here,” Bronson Dean, an inmate, wrote in an email, “where we eat, sleep and live in tight quarters with each other at all times. Many of us feel that the system is playing Russian roulette with our lives to keep a bed filled that they get paid for.”

Marigoni said that nearly 90% of those who have tested positive for the virus haven’t had any symptoms, which is what made it difficult initially to identify that it had been spreading throughout the facility.

He 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 at the main facility. On Friday, there were 590 people incarcerated there. At the Kiesel facility — another, smaller jail the county runs — there are 54 inmates. The capacity for that facility is 260.

Marigoni said masks are mandatory for staff, and are “highly encouraged” to be worn by inmates, but added that no force is being used to make them wear masks.

But organizers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said the outbreak could have been prevented. They said that Weber County was slow to implement a mask mandate for its workers, and the inmates are not given the supplies they need to keep themselves safe.

It’s dangerous, they say, to incarcerate people in congregate care during the coronavirus pandemic — and asked the public to email the Weber County attorney’s office demanding that more inmates be released.

“They said they would be doing early releases,” said Sara Wolovick, an ACLU Equal Justice Works fellow. “We’re waiting. We don’t have time to wait anymore.”