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Alleging 'Reckless Indifference,' Lawyer Says Inmate with COVID-19 Should Be Released

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Emily Corwin for NHPR
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A judge is considering whether an inmate at Valley Street Jail who has COVID-19 should be released on bail, in light of concerns about the facility's management of health and safety during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Charles Temple heard over three hours of arguments and testimony on the Manchester jail's COVID-19 protocols. Attorney Elliot Friedman argued those protocols endanger the health and life of his client, William Jones.

Jones, who is in preventative detention awaiting trial, is one of two inmates who recently tested positive for the virus. Friedman says Jones' treatment by staff, quality of food, and access to counsel has diminished while he’s been under quarantine.

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Those offering testimony during the bail hearing included jail superintendent Willie Scurry, who hours earlier told Hillsborough County Commissioners that “several” staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Under oath, he clarified that 22 staff members are currently positive.

Scurry said he was following advice of the facility’s medical staff but did not clarify whether the jail was following CDC guidelines. He said the jail has conducted few tests on inmates but was ramping up testing in a unit with inmates who may have been exposed.

The jail’s health services supervisor, Denise Hartley, said that inmates complaining of symptoms are quarantined in cells alone or with other inmates who may be positive, and the jail consults with a doctor to determine if a COVID-19 test is necessary.

She also said some inmates who had reported symptoms recanted after being placed in quarantine earlier this month.

Attorney Friedman argued the lack of facility-wide testing and screening of staff put his client at risk, and made it challenging for attorneys to assess their safety risk when meeting in person with clients.

“The jail’s approach to COVID is going to make me in this case with Mr. James choose between his and my health and safety and his right to counsel,” he said. “And that is not a choice anyone should have to make in our legal system.”

Friedman argued that James was better off quarantining at his mother’s home, rather than staying in a unit where he might infect other inmates.

County Attorney Kent Smith said James was at Valley Street Jail “for a reason,” and that his diagnosis did not warrant a release.

“The arguments they are making are almost hysterical, Judge,” he said. “Nurse Hartley described what seems to a very consistent, complete, and effective way of maintaining order and medical safety at the jail.”

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