What It‘s Like to Work at a Jail During Coronavirus

Darian Cuthbertson, who works at a North Carolina jail, begins every morning the same way: praying.
April 30, 2020, 9:23pm

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

Darian Cuthbertson has heard about what's happened at other jails and prisons, and he's worried about the virus entering the facility where he works, a county jail in Mecklenberg, North Carolina. So he begins every morning the same way.

"Praying. Lord, bring me home the same way I came in: safe and sound," Cuthbertson said. "Do an effective job, come back home. But [do] not come into work and bring something that could be catastrophic, for everyone."

Coronavirus has infected thousands of inmates and staff at jails and prisons around the country. And once the virus gets in, it can be hard — or even impossible — to contain. Eight of the 10 biggest coronavirus hot spots in the U.S are at jails and prisons, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Earlier this month, a state prison in Ohio announced that 73% of its inmates had tested positive for coronavirus.

At county jails, sheriffs are the ones tasked with keeping their facilities virus-free. And that job is especially tricky, because they see more turnover, with people who get arrested coming in, and those convicted or acquitted sent out. Without backgrounds in public health or consistent access to basic protective equipment, they’re being forced to follow CDC guidelines as best as they can — and hope for the best.

Sheriff Dave Mahoney, the incoming president of the National Sheriffs' Association, has struggled to find enough protective gear and has had to turn to a local knitting group for masks. He believes the federal government was ill-prepared to help people like him. He's been following state and federal guidelines, screening all staff and all new inmates, but still hasn't managed to keep the virus out of his jail in Dane County, Wisconsin. Eighteen of his inmates and six of his officers have tested positive so far.

"As long as we have workers who leave the institution, go home to their families or to the outside world, we will always stand the opportunity or chance to contract COVID-19," said Mahoney. "I don't think any of us can afford to be overconfident."

VICE News explores what the pandemic has been like for the sheriffs responsible for overseeing jails and the officers they employ.