Grassroots group claims Hamilton County inmates at risk for deadly COVID-19 outbreak

The grassroots group Concerned Citizens for Justice is worried that the Hamilton County Jail and the Silverdale Detention Center are at risk for an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.

With this in mind, they’re seeking the help of the Hamilton County sheriff and other elected officials.

“We cannot wait for the virus to spread and infect incarcerated people,” Concerned Citizens for Justice leaders said in a statement. “Local authorities must act immediately. We demand transparency around the process of releasing people to reduce the spread of COVID-19, specifically for pre-trial, juvenile and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees, persons with compromised or vulnerable health conditions, the elderly, and those incarcerated solely for a drug charge.”

n the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks at multiple prisons across the state, Gov. Bill Lee last week initiated mass testing for all Tennessee Department of Corrections staff and the inmates in their care.

A look at state documents reveal just how quickly COVID-19 has spread at prisons.

In March, the state only tested 22 inmates, none of them tested positive.
But by the end of April, the state had tested 5,800 inmates, mostly at the Bledsoe County and Trousdale Turner facilities. Nearly one-third of the inmates who were tested were positive for COVID-19. Many of those who test positive for coronavirus are asymptomatic.

The Chronicle contacted the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department. Our questions were answered by HCSO spokesperson Matt Lea.

Chronicle: A grassroots group, Concerned Citizens for Justice, claims the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center are at risk for a COVID19 outbreak. What is being done at these facilities to mitigate this risk?

Lea: HCSO Corrections personnel are closely following medical guidelines pertaining to COVID-19 prevention set forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), our local Hamilton County Health Department, and Erlanger Medical personnel (our in-house contracted medical personnel). This includes monitoring the temperature of personnel and inmates as well as isolating new inmates until they can be tested prior to being placed in general population.

Chronicle: Are these facilities fully following CDC coronavirus guidelines and protocols, as far as supplying hand sanitizer, masks, etc.?

Lea: HCSO Corrections personnel provide masks to every inmate at intake/booking. However, we cannot force an inmate to use it. Some inmates have simply chosen to not use a mask. The hand sanitizer on hand is alcohol based, so we will not provide it to the inmate population. Based on the guidance we have received from health officials, we highly encourage inmates to wash hands more frequently than usual. In addition, staff continue to monitor the temperature of personnel and inmates as well as isolating new inmates until they can be tested prior to being placed in general population. HCSO Corrections personnel are closely following medical guidelines pertaining to COVID-19 prevention set forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), our local Hamilton County Health Department, and Erlanger Medical personnel (our in-house contracted medical personnel).

Chronicle: Have any inmates, detainees or staff been tested for coronavirus at the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center since April 30, 2020? If so, have any of those tested come back positive?

Lea: The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has concluded COVID-19 testing on all corrections personnel and inmates in the Hamilton County Jail last week on April 30th. The results of said tests were 100% negative. Since then, eight personnel and inmates have been tested. Those results also returned back negative.

HCSO Corrections personnel are working with the Hamilton County Health Department and CoreCivic to establish needed resources and a plan to test inmates and personnel. No tests have been conducted at Silverdale Detention Facility at this time to our knowledge.

Chronicle: Have there been any coronavirus tests done at the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center after April 30, 2020, with the test results still pending? And if so, how many?

Lea: No test results are pending.

Chronicle: Are there any inmates, detainees or staff at the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center who have not been tested for the coronavirus?

Lea: Any arrestee who booked into the Hamilton County Jail after April 30th at 5 p.m. has not been tested. Staff who are out for medical, military, or suspended duty have not been tested through our resources. Testing has not been conducted at the Silverdale Detention Facility at this time.

Chronicle: Is it true that there are currently instances of 12–and even up to 30–people confined to a cell within Hamilton County Jail, depending on the floor in which they are incarcerated?

Lea: There are several floors in the Hamilton County Jail that utilize a mass holding style design meaning there are 16 bunks (32 beds) laid out in rows to accommodate inmates in a large open area. There are individual cells that are designed to accommodate one inmate while there are others that can hold 6 or 12 inmates depending on the design. The first floor of the jail is utilized for intake and booking. It also contains a temporary holding area for inmates to be housed while they are waiting to be processed or until room can be made available for them upstairs in the primary areas of the jail. This area is also used to allow arrestees to sober up prior to booking or to temporarily hold mentally ill consumers.

Currently, due to COVID-19, there are times where there can be an increased amount of people being held in this area due to the fact we are isolating inmates there while we review their symptoms and potentially await testing. This is to ensure we do not release people with COVID-19 into the jail. Our goal, as long as we can secure enough testing kits routinely from the Health Department, is to test new arrestees who will not bond out of the jail directly and will be held for periods of time longer than 7-10 days. Those being kept in this area do have access to sleeping mats in order to sleep along with shower and restroom facilities.

Chronicle: How is the asymptomatic COVID-19 inmate who recently transferred from Bledsoe County Regional Prison on April 14 doing? I understand that this person was retested, and the test result came back negative. Is this innate still housed at the Hamilton County Jail. If so, is the person in isolation?

Lea: The asymptomatic inmate recently transferred from Bledsoe County Regional Prison on April 14th who tested positive for COVID-19 was retested and the test result came back negative. He remains in the population based on classification.

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