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The Gallatin County sheriff said masks or face coverings inside the county’s jail are discretionary for jailers, and that inmates are prohibited from wearing face coverings for safety reasons.

Sheriff Brian Gootkin said earlier this week that detention center officers at the Law and Justice Center’s security checkpoint are required to wear masks. However, he said, jailers are not required to wear masks because the public does not have access to the jail population.

“We’re still operating the way we normally do,” Gootkin said.

Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive that wearing a mask or face covering in certain situations and “indoor space open to the public” in Montana is required. In the directive, “indoor space open to the public” is defined as a place where the public has access, like lobbies, common areas, elevators, bathrooms, meeting rooms and other places where people can gather.

Gootkin said the jail is a secure facility and that detention center officers and staff are required to wear a face covering if they go out to the lobby of the jail. He said the jail is “not public space” and it is following the governor’s mandate as much as possible.

“I’ve had my whole command staff read (the mask mandate) and adjust as necessary,” Gootkin said.

Inmates are prohibited from wearing face coverings while inside the detention center for the “safety and security” of other inmates and staff, he said. Gootkin said inmates could be hiding something under the masks, using them as paraphernalia for “who knows what” and that jailers need to see inmates facial expressions.

He said the county has not had any discussions about the possibility of releasing and not arresting non-violent offenders like it did when the coronavirus pandemic first hit Montana.

In March, Gootkin asked police chiefs in the county to cite and release people for violations like trespassing and theft. Law enforcement continued jailing people for crimes committed against another person and drunk driving violations.

The decision came after Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath sent a memo to courts of limited jurisdictions asking judges to review jail rosters and release nonviolent offenders. “Due to the confines of these facilities,” McGrath wrote in the March memo, “it will be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus.”

For that to happen again, Gootkin said, he’d have to have a conversation with Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, health officer Matt Kelley and the county’s chiefs of police.

“I have not heard any concerns from any of them,” he said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.