The mother of a federal detainee in the Dane County Jail is seeking to have him released to house arrest — or at least taken from the jail to a hospital — after he was confirmed to have COVID19.
Phillip Thomas, 31, is one of 78 federal detainees in custody of the Dane County Jail while he awaits trial, Dane County Sheriff’s Office representative Elise Schaffer confirmed Thursday. He is one of 18 inmates currently incarcerated who have tested positive for COVID19, his attorney said. Three others who tested positive have been released, Schaffer said.
At least seven of those who are positive for COVID19 are federal detainees, according to a brief filed in federal court Monday by Thomas’s attorney, William Jones.
“The sheriff has no say” over federal detainees, Jones said in an interview Wednesday. If Thomas were being held on state charges, “the sheriff could say that it’s okay to serve your sentence at home where it’s safe instead of leaving it in the hands of a judge,” Jones said.
In fact, that’s exactly what Sheriff Dave Mahoney has done in many cases; the jail population is now 442, down from about 800 when the coronavirus pandemic started.
Jail staff could, however, transport someone to a hospital if they deemed it necessary.
Thomas’s mother, Mary Thomas, said in an interview Wednesday that her son had been in the jail for about three weeks, and began feeling ill about a week ago. A federal judge denied his request to be released to home arrest on Friday; on Monday, he was diagnosed with COVID19.
“He was fine when he went in, so he’s since contracted the virus since he’s been there. As he got sicker and sicker, started having more symptoms, they finally got around to testing him, and that was positive,” Mary Thomas said. “Since then, he’s still been getting sicker and sicker. The fevers, the sweats, the chills, body aches, having trouble breathing, again, still with no inhaler. The only form of help or relief they would offer him is Tylenol that he’d have to buy from the commissary for about five dollars a pill.”
She said he spent a night in solitary confinement after collapsing in the shower. Since then he has been isolated in a pod with other inmates who have tested positive for COVID19.
Mary Thomas said she’s had a hard time getting information about her son’s condition.
“I tried calling, trying to talk with the nurses, trying to speak with the director of his jail, or anybody, however I get a bunch of dead ends. I get voicemails. I never get calls back,” she said.
She said even though the County jail doesn’t determine whether her son can be released, “I think they could be doing more,” including taking him to a hospital for care.
“You don’t even have to release him. If they can get him to the hospital, that would be fine, too,” she said. “He did wrong, so you do wrong, you got to pay for that, but in a season of this nature … He didn’t murder anybody or anything.”
“He did not sound very good and he’s not looking to gain freedom,” Jones said. “He’s looking to gain healthcare and avoid permanent consequences, either death or whatever (COVID19) could do to your health.”
It just makes sense for someone in Thomas’s condition to be at home on electronic monitoring, Jones said.
“There’s bad (air) circulation (in the jail), there’s a lot of population,” he said. “That means the staff is probably overworked and they can’t monitor as closely as he’d like versus a family member who would know when a person needs to go to the hospital.”
Jones said he understands the court’s position, though.
“They’re in a very tough spot because they have an obligation to protect the public and make sure people appear for court … But on the other side, they certainly have an obligation to make sure somebody doesn’t die in jail,” he said. “What’s frustrating is I do not buy the argument that all these people that are infected are somehow a danger to their community in any way. Like they’re going to, in the midst of a pandemic and suffering from this disease, are going to go off and engage in drug dealing or violent crime or theft of property. They’re going to be lying in bed on their backs trying to take a lung full of air.”
He also said he feels US Marshalls are not being entirely upfront about the people they’re supposed to be responsible for.
“The (US) Marshals are reporting to the court, ‘Yeah, I checked with the jail and they said there’s no symptoms.’ I know that’s not true,” Jones said. “I mean, I can tell in the voice that my guy is hurting. I mean, he just sounds like he’s fading as far as just sleeplessness and in some sort of pain. He returns to the same complaints, so I know he’s not just kind of making stuff up.”
Jones said jail officials have told him Thomas is housed in a safe environment, but Jones has not been able to visit that pod.
“What I would love to be able to do is go in there and actually see the pod that they’re living in and see if it’s as they described, because I have a feeling it is not as the jail is describing … I’m just envisioning kind of a leper colony that’s not good and not safe,” he said.
“Our deputies are doing a number of things to protect themselves, including using PPE, the Skytron UV emitters, daily temp checks, and of course the recent testing, just to name a few,” Schaffer said in an email.
Jones said he filed a brief seeking Thomas’s release or hospitalization on Monday, April 27, and that federal prosecutors have until May 4 to respond. Another hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“It’s just that we don’t have a lot of time when you consider that things could go from bad to worse so quickly,” Jones said.
A larger portion of the jail population has recently been tested by members of the Wisconsin National Guard, which is also testing incarcerated people in several other correctional facilities. Those tests found 79 positive cases among inmates in Kenosha County; results for the Dane County are pending.