Debate and controversy over COVID-19 containment protocols in the Tuscaloosa County Jail continue this week as activists argue that officials are not doing enough to protect incarcerated individuals from the virus.

Mike Altman, the man who organized a donation drive that has received more than 23,000 face masks, said in a Thursday press conference that he was "shocked and sickened to learn that the donations have not increased the frequency of mask distribution to incarcerated individuals."

“We have delivered 10,200 to jail in the last three weeks. But when we talk to people inside the jail, they report that they are still only being given masks about once a week,” Altman said. “We have given the jail enough masks to give everyone a new mask every day.”

Sheriff Ron Abernathy told the Tuscaloosa Thread those accusations simply aren't true, though.

Abernathy said since late last year, every inmate in the jail has received a new face mask twice a week, distributed on Tuesdays and Fridays. Since receiving the donated masks, which Abernathy said he greatly appreciated, detention officers now offer each inmate a new mask every day but accepting them is not mandatory.

Abernathy said he cannot force inmates to accept a new mask every day, and a large portion of the jail population is simply declining to do so.

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He also said that as of Thursday morning, the virus is well under control in the jail. He said zero detention officers are COVID-positive and only three inmates are known to be currently infected.

He praised the work of doctors and nurses from Maude Whatley Health Services, who treat inmates at the jail for any number of maladies. Thanks to them, Abernathy said, there have been no COVID-related fatalities in the Tuscaloosa County Jail since the pandemic began.

Altman also takes issue with overcrowding at the jail, which was only intended to house 542 inmates. Abernathy said there were just under 700 inmates in the jail Thursday, but addressing that problem is harder than it may seem.

Firstly, roughly 125 of those inmates are convicted state inmates who are being kept in jail because there is no room for them in state prisons. Abernathy said he has been told the Alabama Department of Corrections will ease that burden soon but had no timeline for when those inmates may be transferred out of Tuscaloosa County.

Second, Abernathy said he has no authority to release jail inmates without an order from the relevant judge mandating that he do so.

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