Lewis County Drops Jail Population in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic


The number of inmates at Lewis County Jail has dropped substantially in March, but it isn’t because crime is slowing down.

The rapid decline of inmates is due to efforts from the Lewis County Jail, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office and the Lewis County courts to keep population numbers low to limit the spread of the coronavirus, though as of last Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the jail, corrections Chief Chris Sweet said.

Sweet added by his own estimate that crime hasn’t slowed down, the drop in inmate population at the jail is solely a manifestation of restrictions placed on who is being booked into the jail.

“We’re trying to be more efficient, make sure we have just the essentials here and the nonessentials were trying to (get out of the jail) to limit the exposure and limit the potential of someone getting the virus inside of our facility,” Sweet said.

Since March 2, when the jail’s total system population sat at 215 inmates, the population has dropped to 121.

The last time the jail population was as low as 121 inmates was when the jail was adding additions to their facility in 2005, according to Captain Chris Tawes, a 19-year veteran at the Lewis County Jail.

Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer said his office is doing their part by looking at cases that have been flagged by the jail as a person in a vulnerable population and sees if there is anything that can be done to alter their sentencing or conditions.

“Obviously punishment is one thing, but we don’t want to expose them to potential sickness,” Meyer said.

Meyer gave an example of one exemplary inmate who had just 15 days left to serve and was among the vulnerable population. By working with the inmate’s attorney, the Prosecutor’s Office was able to present an order to the court to lower his sentence.

Meyer also acknowledged the Lewis County courts have a role to play in keeping the inmate population down because they are the ones who ultimately determine the bail amount. 

He added that it isn’t the Prosecutor’s Office’s job to lower their bail requests to keep the inmate population low, rather it is the judges’ job to determine bail amounts that will in turn lead to fewer inmates in the jail during the coronavirus pandemic.

And the courts have made it clear they are limiting inmates to violent offenses only, according to Meyer.

For example, just last week a man who had a history of failing to appear at court hearings and was already out of custody on conditions was picked up for a new charge — Meyer felt a $100,000 bail was appropriate.

Under normal circumstances, perhaps the courts would have agreed with Meyer’s request. But Meyer said they decided to lower the bail.

“We each have our role in the system,” Meyer said. “But the court sets the bail.”

Coincidentally — and rather conveniently, Sweet said — bookings had already been restricted prior to the coronavirus outbreak. In late February, the jail began restricting bookings to accomodate a remodeling project happening at the jail.

The project — repainting several jail cells — necessitated a fewer number of inmates in the facility to maintain the ratio of inmates to beds to bathrooms that is federally required.