Investigations of Safety in Jails and Juvenile Detention Centers During COVID-19

February 21, 2021

Plain Language Summary 

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) visits jails and juvenile detention centers to be sure people with disabilities are not being hurt there. DRT is always trying to make people with disabilities safer. Many people in Tennessee jails are not safe because of COVID-19. DRT has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to change this. We have asked that some people be allowed to leave. When there are fewer people around then people can social distance. We have not heard from the Tennessee Supreme Court yet. We will always keep working on keeping people safe.

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and protected from harm, including people who are incarcerated. Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) has been investigating conditions for Tennesseans with disabilities in jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons for decades. During this time, we’ve worked to effect changes in policies and procedures that have helped many people with disabilities who are incarcerated. We have also individually advocated for inmates with disabilities and filed systemic impact litigation on their behalf. However, our work is far from finished as we continue working to ensure health and safety is a priority in these facilities.

As the pandemic began in early 2020, it became clear that COVID-19 thrives when people are close together. This made our work in jails and prisons even more pressing and complex. 

“According to the CDC People with disabilities who have underlying chronic medical conditions, like lung disease, a serious heart condition, or a weakened immune system, are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and when jails remain overcrowded in the middle of a pandemic they often cannot effectively isolate infected persons or quarantine new arrivals,” explains DRT attorney Daniel Ellis.

Unfortunately overcrowding in Tennessee jails is not uncommon. During DRT’s investigation of the Hamblen County Jail, Ellis found the facility wasn’t following COVID-19 safety protocols and the conditions of the aging building were poor and overcrowded. Hamblen County Jail has a long history of exceeding its 255-bed capacity. Hamblen County’s Sherriff Esco Jarnagin even described the jail as a “cesspool of a dungeon” in December 2019.[1]  Though Hamblen County Jail’s population decreased in the early months of the Pandemic, by August of 2020 they were again exceeding their bed capacity and Tennesseans positive for COVID-19 began to rise again.

“During my tour of the Hamblen County Jail, I only saw one person who was detained there wearing a mask. Additionally, I did not see any apparent effort at social distancing between the people held there,” Ellis states. “To access the suicide watch cell at the end of the hall, I had to step around people laying on the floor of the jail where it appeared they also slept.”

Of additional concern is the fact that many of the people currently in jails have yet to be convicted of a crime. They are simply unable to pay court fees or bail, so they cannot leave these facilities to await their trial dates in the safety of their own homes. With the rates of unemployment disproportionally higher for people with disabilities, there is often overlap between disability and experiencing poverty. This intersection of poverty and disability makes navigating the American judicial system particularly difficult. 

In response to the dangerous conditions in Tennessee jails during the COVID-19 pandemic, DRT has joined other organizations in petitioning the Tennessee Supreme Court. Together, Choosing Justice Initiative, No Exceptions Prison Collective, Unheard Voices Outreach, Disability Rights Tennessee, Just City, and the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have requested the reduction of current jail and juvenile detention center populations to 50% or less of their capacity. This would allow detainees to socially distance and quarantine consistent with CDC guidelines within the facilities, and for the release of people with disabilities who are at higher risk of COVID-19 infections and a low risk to the community. Read the full request to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“Exposing anyone — much less people who are presumed innocent and awaiting trial — to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than they would face in the community, in conditions where they cannot protect themselves, is wrong,” the petition states.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has yet to respond to the petition, but DRT’s work will continue either way.

“Disability Rights Tennessee is tenacious,” Ellis states. “We are committed to showing up for Tennesseans with disabilities year after year – in the community, living in group homes and facilities, and when they’re experiencing incarceration.”

[1] Oppel, Richard A., Jr. ‘A Cesspool of a Dungeon’: The Surging Population in Rural Jails.  New York Times, December 13, 2019.