Rural jail populations surge again posing new risks as coronavirus cases spike

By: - November 2, 2020 5:30 am
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

After an initial reduction in jail populations at the start of the epidemic, thousands of men and women have been newly incarcerated in local lockups across Tennessee — creating overcrowded conditions in rural counties even as the state experiences record levels of death and infection as COVID-19 continues its spread outside urban areas.

Data from the Department of Correction shows that county jails, spurred by a Tennessee Supreme Court order to create reduction plans, released 30%  of all inmates between February and May — freeing 9,200 men and women who had non-violent offenses, were near the end of their sentences or met other criteria for safe release, including poor health.

By September, thousands of the empty beds they left behind were filled by new inmates. The state’s jails have added more than 3,300 since May. In 35 of the state’s 95 counties, local lockups operated by county sheriffs are now overcrowded. These facilities are operating between 90% capacity — making it difficult to isolate sick inmates — to over 170% capacity, making it impossible.

The risk of uncontrolled outbreaks from overcrowded jail conditions is not only a risk to inmates and staff. Jails have been central to community spread of the virus. In Illinois, as one example, one in every six cases of COVID-19 in the state by mid-April was been tied to people cycling through Chicago’s Cook County Jail or staff, an analysis by the publication Health Affairs found.

To be sure, Chicago’s jail is one of the largest in the nation, with more than 4,000 inmates, while Tennessee’s county jails typically hold fewer than 500 each — and many of the state’s smaller counties hold fewer than 100.

Yet experts say the jail numbers are rising to dangerous levels in the midst of an airborne disease easily transmissible in closed quarters. Jailhouse infections could exacerbate the rising numbers of infection outside their walls, posing a risk that is especially acute in communities that lack hospital and healthcare resources.

In 35 of the state’s 95 counties, local lockups operated by county sheriffs are now overcrowded. These facilities are operating between 90% capacity — making it difficult to isolate sick inmates — to over 170% capacity, making it impossible.

“In the early months, Tennessee was in line with what was happening nationally,” said Jasmine Heiss, a project director at Vera Institute of Justice, which has worked in the past to advise Tennessee policy makers on criminal justice reform.  “What we’ve seen since May is a rebound driven by rural areas. It really points to almost an impending catastrophe. I think it’s likely to see these facilities be one of the single largest sources of viral spread.”

In Blount County, just south of Knoxville, Deputy Chief Chris Cantrell said that judges, prosecutors and jail administrators worked in the Spring to reduce the number of inmates at the county jail, where 532 inmates were incarcerated in a 350-bed facility in January.

They succeeded, temporarily. By May the number was down to 390.

Data and table prepared by the Vera Institute of Justice. The state’s jails hold several different categories of inmates: those awaiting trial who haven’t posted bond, those convicted of misdemeanor offenses serving short sentences, convicted felons awaiting transfer to state prisons, convicted felons serving their sentences in jail and a small number of federal inmates. 


Four months later, the Blount County Adult Detention Facility was back to its pre-COVID levels. There were 531 inmates housed in the jail in September — more than 50 percent over its capacity level.

“Once court picked back up as far as intakes and arrests, we’re pretty much at how it’s been normally with drug charges and probation violations,” Cantrell said. “Here if you are coming into contact with someone who’s broken the law, we’ll pick them right up.”

The jail had one mass outbreak in August, infecting 140 inmates and at least 20 staff.

Cantrell said that the onset of the pandemic was difficult: “Things were rapidly changing and it hit me in every aspect that I’m in charge of, coming up with protocols.”

“Things are good now,” Cantrell said.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall (Photo: Submitted)
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall (Photo: Submitted)

In Davidson County, Sheriff Daron Hall oversees about 950 Tennessee inmates currently housed in its Nashville detention facility, and about 100 held for U.S. Marshalls. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hall set a benchmark of 1,000 inmates in a jail that has the capacity for 1,300.  Ensuring the detention center was far below capacity would allow jailers to create separate sections for ill and exposed inmates, reducing the spread.  But it wasn’t going to be enough to release inmates who were already incarcerated, Hall said. He needed a reduction in new admissions.

Hall called then Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson to talk about finding alternatives to arrests. That initial conversation, Hall said, “did not go well.”

“The second time I called I said we were desperate,” Hall said. On March 19, Anderson announced that officers were being “strongly encouraged to maximize their discretion” in issuing citations in lieu of physical arrests for misdemeanor offenses to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread inside Nashville’s detention centers. Domestic violence and DUI offenses were excluded.

There were no positive cases at the jail last week, but at its highest there were 300 infections. A 64-year-old woman with underlying conditions who was jailed later died from the disease.

“We were in crisis management to manage that initial push, but my feeling was if you didn’t put something into place things were going to get worse over time,” he said.

“My fear is those folks who didn’t do these things early on are probably going to be back up,” said Hall, who served for nine years on the board of the Tennessee Corrections Institute, which provides guidance to the state’s county jails.

It’s unknown how many outbreaks have occurred at the state’s county jails, which currently house more than 24,000 inmates across the state.

Unlike schools, prisons and nursing homes, state health officials do not routinely release data on infections by jail. Unlike prisons, the state has conducted no comprehensive mass testing across all jails.

In March the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order requiring county officials to submit plans to reduce jail populations. Those plans varied widely from county to county in the level of detail and steps each local jurisdiction would take to keep jail populations low.

County officials have long grappled with overcrowding in local jails. More than half of Tennessee jails were overcrowded at the start of 2020. Pre-COVID, the focus was on the increased costs of housing men and women or building bigger jails.

David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association, said that county mayors and commissioners are concerned about the possibility of an outbreak of coronavirus in jails that they are ill equipped to handle. In speaking with officials around the state, Connor said he has heard them mull over alternatives including using empty National Guard spaces or other facilities should inmates get sick.

With a temporary drop in jail populations between February and May, Connor said officials are also looking at whether releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce the risk of an outbreak have benefited the community. Has there been any increase in crime or reoffenders or has the county saved money without ill effect when it released inmates?

“They don’t necessarily want to go back to before,” he said. Some Tennessee counties have built new jails to accommodate growing inmate populations as soon as 10 or 12 years after building the last jail, he said.

COVID fears reduce jail populations

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.