Tennessee State Prisons: A Petri-Dish for COVID-19 Infection


Pipa Powers, Contributor

In the week leading up to Mar. 4, the Tennessee state prison system reported 16 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. These cases have brought the prison total to 6,541 recoveries and 42 deaths. Of the 42 deaths, 15 are confirmed to be directly tied to COVID-19, while the remainder are awaiting confirmation from a medical examiner.

While the Tennessee state prison system has implemented a number of measures intended to stop the spread and promote the safety of prisoners and staff, these have largely failed to prevent and constrain outbreaks. In August, a private state prison had the largest reported outbreak in the state’s prison system in the months surrounding the incident, reporting 1,144 cases in one testing period. Despite the outbreak, prison protocols for handling the COVID-19 pandemic have only undergone minor updates since April 2020. 

Current procedures of the Department of Correction focus on frequent mass testing of inmates, cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, and isolating individuals after a confirmed case. Positive cases are treated in prison healthcare facilities unless hospital visits become absolutely necessary. In regards to medical care, insurance co-pays have been waived for inmates for the time being. 

These current procedures, however, fall short of all possible preventative measures. While pre-scheduled releases of inmates are still set to occur on time, the state has opted to not release any additional prisoners early, a measure that has been adopted in other states to reduce the prison population and contain the spread. In addition, legal visits have been suspended for the time being, so inmate access to counsel is greatly restricted. 

While outside visitation and legal visits are on hold, prisons are generally not on lockdown. According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, all correctional facilities are prioritizing maintaining as many services as possible. Movement in prisons is often only restricted when it comes to screening processes and temperature checks. 

Educational and inmate work programs still continue, including select programs that take place off prison grounds. One work program is the production of certain COVID-19 preventative equipment, specifically surgical masks produced at the Morgan County Correctional Complex and face shields at the Northeast Correctional Complex. In addition, the West Tennessee State Penitentiary is a large producer of masks and Tyvek gowns. These manufacturing processes are in partnership with East Tennessee State University and TRICOR, an organization focused on providing Tennessee’s incarcerated population with job training and coaching programs.

Vanderbilt University law professor Terry Maroney shared her perspective on the treatment of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her research primarily focuses on emotion as it plays into the criminal justice system, so her interview examined the implications on inmate health and safety through a more humanistic viewpoint. She claimed that societal biases against prisoners and the political nature of the pandemic have contributed to the failures of the prison system in handling outbreaks. She further explained that if it were not for these factors, prisons would have been targeted with the same vigorous public health efforts as is present in elderly care facilities. Professor Maroney explained that this could have been achieved through an aggressive program to let many people out of jails for preventative measures. 

The combination of the Tennessee government standards and practices has led to what Professor Maroney referred to as a petri dish for COVID-19 infection, a practice that she cites as being shameful to the entire incarcerated population. Holistically, Tennessee’s COVID-19 protocols in the prison system have failed to meet the basic health and safety needs of the prison population, further exacerbating the harm of the pandemic.