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For Inmates, COVID-19 Fears Add Stress To Life Behind Bars

Jake Ryan

Ronald Nelson wants out of jail.

For seven months, he’s been serving time for drug charges in the Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He’s got just four months left on his sentence. But as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, Nelson, 38, said every day he’s locked up seems like an unnecessary risk to his well-being.

“We’re scared,” he said in a recent interview via video call. “We’re all scared to death.”

A spokesperson for the Clark County Sheriff did not return multiple requests for comment for this story. 

Some inmates have been released from the Clark County Jail, according to a reportlast month in The Courier Journal. Just how many, though, isn’t clear, and Nelson was not among them. 

He knows jails and prisons are at high risk for outbreaks of the coronavirus, due to tight spaces, crowded cells and the natural flow of people coming and going from facilities. On Monday, an inmate died from the disease at the Westville Correctional Facility in northern Indiana, accordingto The Indianapolis Star.

Nelson said he and the inmates in his section of the jail are keenly aware of the pandemic and its danger. They listen to the radio for news updates and try to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to stem the spread -- wash hands, cover their face, and maintain distance from others.

But in jail, that’s not easy.

They do wash their hands, he said. Cells are equipped with sinks, and inmates are provided bar soap. But hand sanitizer is scarce, and Nelson said it’s only provided before meal time.

“They will spray one spray on our hand,” he said.

He’s not been provided masks, and as he hunched over the computer screen for the interview, a crowd of other inmates gathered behind him. Some covered their faces with shirts. Soon, an officer shouted for the crowd to disperse.

Nelson said the officer wore a mask and gloves.

“They protect themselves,” he said. “What about protecting us?”

Nelson worries about the officers because they traverse the entire jail. Some work in the booking area, then make rounds from section to section, going into inmates’ cells. 

With this, Nelson fears that if the virus was in one part of the jail, it could be easily carried across the entire jail, to inmates in crowded day rooms and two-man cells that are sometimes converted to four-man cells.

“There’s no way possible we can be six feet between each other, at all, at any time,” Nelson said.

And while the men in the jail worry about themselves, Nelson said they also fear for their families and whether they’ll make it through the pandemic financially without their help.

“We got kids and stuff out there,” Nelson said.

His family worries about him, as well.

Shirley Leffew has dated Nelson for almost two years and the two plan to get engaged when he gets out, which she hopes is sooner rather than later.

Leffew doesn’t downplay the trouble that landed Nelson in jail, but she also doesn’t think it would endanger society to let him out. 

Nelson had a scheduled court hearing last week, and both he and Leffew were hopeful he’d get released. But he didn’t; the hearing was continued due to the pandemic.

“He is a really, really great man,” Leffew said. “He’s got a heart, he’s smart, he’s got things going for him.”

She hasn’t been able to speak with Nelson in a few days because doing so costs money, and she spent her money on groceries. So she is watching the news and worrying. She said Nelson has asthma and high blood pressure, and right now, he’s paranoid.

She wants him home, she wants him safe.

On Tuesday, the News and Tribune reported that a 24-year-old inmate held at the Clark County Jail tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

Leffew still hadn’t talked with Nelson, and she was scared.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “He needs to get out of there.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.