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Tribal President's office raises COVID-19 concerns over operation of county jail

County officals content most of the concerns are addressed

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
  • A member of the community provided The Daily Times a copy of a June 29 letter from the tribe's Office of the President and Vice President to the San Juan County Commission.
  • A July 2 letter from county commission Chairman Jack Fortner rebuked most of the concerns levied by the Navajo Nation president's office.
  • Also mentioned is a June 28 trip to the jail by Dr. Aja Sanzone,​​​​​​​ the Medical Director of the state's Infectious Disease Epidemiology Bureau.

FARMINGTON — The office of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez raised concerns last month about the conditions detainees are facing at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the jail's population.

The county government responded, stating most of the concerns brought up in the letter were already addressed, and the facility's managers and staff have made great efforts to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus in the detainee population.

Among the Navajo Nation leadership's specific concerns were whether COVID-19-positive detainees mixed with those who tested negative, the measures used to sanitize the facility and whether those infected received medical treatment.

The facility's management last month began several series of COVID-19 tests to track the spread of the virus among prisoners who had tested negative and isolate those who are infected, according to updates over the past weeks from a county spokesperson.

The county's response detailed the jail's efforts to fight the virus' spread and track the health of detainees.

President's letter seeks answers

A June 29 letter from the tribe's Office of the President and Vice President to the San Juan County Commission asked pointed questions after concerns were raised by a constituent.

The letter mentioned a June 27 Daily Times articles stating 66 new detainees tested positive for a total of 99 cases that week from the jail.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

It states a concerned family member of a detainee who is fearful for the safety of those inside the facility told the office of multiple concerns they had about jail operations.

Among the allegations, rebuffed by the county, were that COVID-19 positive patients are being housed with those who tested negative, that no laundry facilities were in operation, that those who are infected are not receiving medical attention, that there are difficulties with social distancing in the pods and that jail employees were ill and still working.

The letter also questioned efforts to sanitize the facility and if there was proper use of personal protection equipment (PPE).

The letter requested an investigation into the jail's operations, as a majority of the detainees are of Navajo descent.

County rebuts the allegations

A July 2 letter from County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner rebuked most of the concerns levied by the Navajo Nation president's office.

It detailed how COVID-19-positive detainees are quarantined away from those who test negative, that infected detainees receive 24-7 medical care and have access to soap to wash their hands, along with access to laundry machines to do their own laundry, in addition to laundry completed by the facility twice a week.

Jack Fortner

It also stated detainees were issued face masks, with about 99 percent of the population wearing them. and that jail staff spray the detention pods, including the walls, with sanitizer three times a day.

Detainees who test positive or are presumed positive are given disposable KN95 masks, which are more effective than surgical or cloth masks at blocking particles, the letter said.

Also mentioned is a June 28 trip to the jail by the Medical Director of the state's Infectious Disease Epidemiology Bureau Dr. Aja Sanzone.

The letter states she approved of the jail's COVID-19 practices, making two recommendations to use Styrofoam food trays and footwear coverings for those walking between pods with infected and non-infected detainees.

Tensions in the facility are high

Frustration over test results not being communicated to inmates, and a dispute over meals in the facility, boiled over this week into a violent and destructive confrontation. Area law enforcement were dispatched on July 13 to quell a riot that resulted in one inmate being injured and damage to the facility.

County officials argued the incident was a disturbance, as detainees didn't gain control of any part of the facility. Fires were started in two pods and some detainees were armed with pieces of porcelain from broken plumbing fixtures.

One inmate was reportedly injured during the incident.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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