Editor's note: This story has been updated
FRONT ROYAL — If guards get sick, they will keep working at the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren County Regional Jail if the situation demands.
Russ Gilkison, the jail superintendent, told members of the jail authority board Thursday that he and his staff are prepared to house not just inmates but staff members to ensure the jail continues to operate despite growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the county.
Gilkison said the jail is practicing every safety measure it can to ensure that staff and inmates do not fall ill. The plan is not to bring sick people to work right away, Gilkison said. Staff will only work and stay at the jail if the alternative means the jail cannot stay open.
Evan Vass, Shenandoah County’s administrator, asked Gilkison about the jail’s risks during the crisis. He said that with most travel in and out of the facility restricted, the looming issue appeared to be manpower.
Gilkison said that staff members know when they sign up that working while they’re sick might be part of the job. State laws require a certain inmate to guard ratio at all times. Because the jail cannot shut down it has prepared for the worst-case scenario.
“Our staff is very committed,” Gilkison said. “I’ve had a lot of staff comment to me that they’re here for the duration. I’ve set up areas of the building that if we need to quarantine staff inside there, that they need to live there, we’re ready to do that. We’re ready to feed them. We’re ready to house them. We’re ready to do whatever we have to do and they’re on board to do that.”
The COVID-19 crisis forced the jail authority to put some items on its agendas on the fast-track while pumping the brakes on others.
Doug Stanley, the Warren County administrator and Jail Authority Board member, said he hoped to approve the jail’s fiscal year 2021 budget on Thursday. However, Vass suggested the authority postpone putting a final stamp and signature on the budget until the meeting in May to provide each county time to hold public hearings on their budgets.
The three named counties for the jail all have contractual requirements to budget a set portion of the jail’s budget within their county. Timing for the counties is more delicate than the jail, Vass said, because counties have to balance issues such as increasing tax rates while the jail is waiting for the budget to see how much it will have to spend in the coming year.
The jail is looking at providing bonuses to its employees in the coming year and the state budget has allotted funds to provide a 3% increase in the following year. Those increases should help RSW stay competitive in terms of hiring, Stanley said.
Gilkison told the authority that the jail has experienced a surge in applications and staff. The nursing staff is filled for the first time in years, he said. Many people gravitated to the jail after LSC Communications in Strasburg closed earlier this year and, Gilkison said, he suspects the jail will receive more applications as COVID-19 continues to put people out of work.
The security that comes with a job at the jail will be appealing to people who are facing uncertain futures, Gilkison said.
COVID-19 also accelerated the authority’s discussions about implementing a remote-participation policy. The policy, which would allow members to participate electronically as long as a physical quorum is present, is allowed under the current Freedom of Information Act law.
Earlier this month, Virginia’s Attorney General issued an opinion stating that public bodies are allowed to conduct fully electronic meetings during the COVID-19 crisis but the jail authority’s legal counsel acknowledged that the opinion was not clear whether it extended to the authority.
Vass said the authority was already considering the remote-participation policy but the COVID-19 crisis moved those discussions up the priority list.