Montana halts transfers from 3 jails with COVID-19 outbreaks

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana officials said Tuesday they have suspended the transfer of state inmates out of three county jails because of COVID-19 outbreaks at the facilities that combined have infected more than 90 inmates and staff.

The outbreaks come as authorities overseeing jails in Billings and Great Falls have pressed state officials to remove some inmates to reduce crowding.

At least 34 inmates at the Yellowstone County Detention Center in Billings and 53 inmates at two staff at the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days. Several inmates at the Big Horn County Jail in Hardin tested positive last month.

The movement suspensions will remain until the jails see a “significant reduction in active virus cases,” said State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright.

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said he was “not happy”with the state’s decisions. Slaughter said he has been trying for months to get the state to remove inmates who had already been sentenced. Those 40 inmates contribute to overcrowding that has made the outbreak worse, he said.

Notwithstanding the state’s decisions, Slaughter said he plans to deliver 10 inmates to state prison who already have been sentenced and legally can’t be turned away.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services was consulted by corrections officials prior to the suspension decision, state epidemiologist Stacey Anderson said.

The suspension will halt the transfer of inmates from the jails to the state prisons in Deer Lodge and Billings or to contract facilities and treatment centers. The action is in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to help keep the virus from spreading to other locations, Anderson said.

Prior to the movement suspension, at least 58 inmates had been transferred out of the Cascade and Yellowstone county jails to state facilities since May 1, Bright said. Comparable figures for Big Horn County were not immediately available.

State health officials on Tuesday reported six additional deaths from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 97 since the first infection was reported in Montana on March 11. Five of the deaths were in Yellowstone County.

Three of those deaths were at senior living facilities, including a resident of Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings where 17 people have died after most residents and staff got infected.

Yellowstone has about 15 percent of the state’s population, but accounts for about 40 percent of the deaths to date. It has roughly half the infections that are still considered active.

An additional 136 new virus cases were confirmed statewide on Tuesday, including 39 in Cascade County and 19 in Yellowstone.

The number of infections is believed to be much higher because not all people have been tested and because people can have COVID-19 without feeling symptoms.

The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, such as a fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.


This story has been corrected to remove reference to sheriff saying inmates would be taken to state prison Thursday. He did not say Thursday.