Gov. Bill Lee called for widespread COVID-19 testing, but TDOC has tested only 46
Adam Tamburin, Nashville TennesseanPublished 12:38 p.m. CT April 14, 2020 |Updated 3:50 p.m. CT April 14, 2020
Tennessee prison officials have tested only 46 inmates for the novel coronavirus despite evidence that asymptomatic cases might have spread the potentially deadly virus within at least two state-run facilities.
The limited testing makes it impossible to predict how widespread the virus has become in state prisons, and runs contrary to Gov. Bill Lee's call to make tests more widely accessible.
Advocates say the lack of data heightens the risk of an outbreak among inmates and correctional officers who cannot follow social distancing guidelines required of most Tennesseans.
The state prison system has teamed up with the Department of Health and the Department of Military to offer mass testing for employees in at least two sites. But so far prison officials have not ordered similar waves of widespread testing for state inmates.
More than 1,100 prison staff were tested last week, identifying at least 19 asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 among prison staff at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville and the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.
Asymptomatic cases trigger testing
The rounds of widespread testing for staff were triggered after six employees at those facilities reported they had the virus. At a news conference Monday, Lee said the asymptomatic cases among prison employees underscored the need for more robust testing in Tennessee.
But testing of the more than 21,000 state inmates in 14 facilities has been limited to a tiny fraction of the population with symptoms of the virus.
In March, 22 inmates were tested, with all of those tests coming back negative, according to the Department of Correction. This month, 24 inmates have been tested, identifying four confirmed cases of COVID-19, the department said Monday.
The state's testing numbers nearly match those of the much smaller Davidson County Sheriff's Office, which has tested 41 of its 1,051 inmates.
The Tennessee Department of Correction has been screening inmates for symptoms, has isolated inmates who have had confirmed exposure to the virus and has provided inmates and staff at all of its facilities with cloth masks.
TDOC spokeswoman Faith Seifuddin said the agency was "evaluating various options for testing of inmates." She did not provide details or answer questions about what those options might entail.
Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said the widespread testing of prison staff in two locations "was the wise and prudent course in order to attempt to prevent introduction of coronoavirus into the prison system."
Ferguson said the prison system was "proactively testing inmates who were in contact with (prison staff who had the coronavirus) or have symptoms, even if there was no contact."
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Lee said Tuesday the state was looking at ways to expand testing capacity, but he said testing the elderly and people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities would be the top priority because of their heightened risk factors.
“Prisons will be something we look at at the right time," Lee said.
Understanding an outbreak
The state's existing strategy to stop COVID-19 is "absolutely unacceptable," said Dawn Harrington, executive director of the Nashville criminal justice reform advocacy group Free Hearts.
"Our loved ones are going to die in prison as a result," Harrington said in a statement. "Testing based on symptoms does nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because people spread it asymptotically — so if you are only testing those with symptoms you are not containing it, you are neglectfully allowing it to spread."
Harrington said her group would be meeting with TDOC leaders this week to discuss the issue.
Knoxville attorney Jonathan Cooper, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the lack of comprehensive testing in state prisons was blocking understanding of potential outbreaks.
The association of defense lawyers "demands that our government immediately institute testing procedures for all prisoners to treat those that require it and protect those who will," Cooper said.
"How we protect imprisoned citizens, critically vulnerable in this health crisis, reflects our society’s level of compassion and humanity," Cooper said. "Sadly, our state as a whole has dedicated no time, attention, or resources to protect our defenseless prison population."
Cooper said testing some TDOC employees without testing inmates keeps the employees away from critical information they need to avoid infection in the future.
Jeannie Alexander, director of the Nashville-based No Exceptions Prison Collective, said the state did not have the resources needed to test every inmate or TDOC employee. The alternative, she said, was to release more inmates from custody.
"Should every incarcerated person and every staff member within TDOC and CoreCivic prisons be tested? Sure, but there aren't nearly enough tests, period," Alexander said. "If we do not want thousands of prison sentences to turn into death sentences, the only responsible thing to do is decarcerate broadly, and start doing so now."
The consequences of unchecked spread of the virus behind bars could be explosive. Prison outbreaks in other states and in the federal prison system have sickened thousands at a rapid clip.
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Recent results out of Arkansas illustrate the way prison conditions can quickly exacerbate an outbreak.
The Arkansas prison system reported its first case of COVID-19 Sunday. A day later, it confirmed 43 additional asymptomatic cases among the 46 inmates housed in the same barracks.
Tennessee officials have scrambled to shrink rosters in local jails to avoid similar outbreaks here, with much of that work focused on limiting the risk to guards who could further spread such an outbreak to the general public.
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The Tennessee Supreme Court ordered judges across the state to submit plans to release jail inmates and reduce crowding.
Efforts to address crowded state prisons have been more measured. The Tennessee Board of Parole said it was considering relaxing some requirements for inmates who were approved for release pending special classes or other programming.
A spokesman for the parole board did not immediately respond to questions about the board's deliberations.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tamburintweets.