It’s not every day that the Opinion page editor receives a letter from a jail inmate.
But it’s not unusual for incarcerated people to write journalists about their plights, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. Many journalists have collaborated with prisoners in order to get inside information about nefarious prison operations; others, believing a prisoner’s claim of innocence, have investigated and exonerated those wrongly convicted of crimes.
It’s always tricky ground to navigate, so we’ve decided not to name the inmate who recently wrote us from La Plata County Jail to avoid colluding in what might be considered a public relations effort on his behalf.
Yet we think it worth repeating the praise the inmate heaped on Capt. Ed Aber, detention division commander (and head honcho of the jail), and others who have helped keep inmates and workers safe from COVID-19.
“I’ve read a few comments in the paper and seen things on the news about people arguing that inmates shouldn’t be vaccinated, although nationwide, jails and prisons report infections in the hundreds,” wrote our inmate.
He continued, “Thank God for Capt. Aber and his concerns to fulfill his duty … to keep the inmates secure and safe.”
A call to Aber filled in the details.
The jail instituted a mask mandate last spring, requiring all workers as well as inmates to wear masks when in contact with others. The jail conducts rapid COVID-19 testing on all incoming inmates and quarantines newcomers for 14 days. Inmates must have a third negative test before being moved into the general population. Isolation cells are deep-cleaned between inmates and inmates are given clean clothing and bedrolls before joining the general population.
So far, the attention to detail has worked. The jail is one of only two in the state that has avoided a coronavirus outbreak, although about six-eight prisoners have been diagnosed with COVID-19 each month upon arrival at the jail (and, of course, quarantined), Aber said.
“It’s been constant – changing and adjusting to protocols,” he said. “We’ve been doing the best we can to keep it out.”
Some workers among the 72 detention division staff (38 work daily in the jail) have contracted COVID-19 and been sent home to recover, he said.
On March 3, San Juan Basin Public Health offered vaccinations for inmates, and 69% of the 131 incarcerated at the time agreed to get them, Aber said. Some 72% of jail staff also are vaccinated.
“We’re constantly trying to encourage those who are resistant to do it.”
Aber didn’t want to take any personal credit for the jail’s success at minimizing COVID-19 impacts.
“This has really been a team effort, from the newest deputy we have in the facility on up. It’s not anything I did; it’s something we did collectively, and thus far are successful at.”
San Juan Basin Public Health deserves much of the credit, he said.
“We sure appreciate everything they’ve done to help us keep this place safe, from providing testing to vaccinations. They’ve come in and done flu vaccine clinics before this, too.” Making the COVID-19 vaccination clinic happen was the natural result of the longstanding and positive relationship between the two organizations, he said.
There it is again: connection and relationship. We want to foster more of that, and one way we can do it is to continue to follow public health safety protocols until the pandemic is really and truly over.
The inmate who wrote to us gets it. He said he’ll continue to wear a mask when he is released.
“Please encourage your readers … to choose to wear it [masks] because you care about others,” he wrote.
“It’s what community means.”
We completely agree.