Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)
At two private prisons, COVID-19 positive test rates are three times higher than at the average state-run facility in Tennessee, according to Tennessee Department of Corrections aggregate data.
Both managed by a contractor, CoreCivic, Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility and South Central Correctional Facility have overall positive test rates of 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively. CoreCivic also runs Hardeman County Correctional Facility and Whiteville Correctional Facility, whose rates are more on par with the TDOC-run average of 8 percent.
CoreCivic is not susceptible to any formal government policy regarding COVID-19. A contract monitor hired by TDOC is stationed at each private prison and is mainly responsible for writing reports, according to a job posting from 2019. It’s unclear whether this contract monitor has any role in overseeing COVID-19 protocol.
“Our facilities have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic and we’re continuing to work closely [sic] our government partners to enhance procedures as needed,” CoreCivic Director of Public Affairs Ryan Gustin wrote in an email.
In 2020, the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury released a scathing audit of TDOC, reporting that CoreCivic mishandled data regarding deaths, sexual abuses, violence and inmate health. The audit also “identified deficiencies with medicine distribution practices at CoreCivic facilities, placing both inmates and medical staff at risk.” Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) said during a hearing at the time, “I’ve never seen a 200-page report like this.”
Neither CoreCivic nor TDOC employees are required to be vaccinated or provide negative test results. As of Oct. 4, 1,985 prison employees have tested positive, and six have died of COVID-19. Gustin wrote, “While there isn’t currently a vaccination requirement of our staff that work at our Tennessee facilities, we are strongly encouraging CoreCivic staff to take the vaccine and are working hard to facilitate access for our team as quickly as is appropriate within federal, state and local guidance.”
TDOC first reported that inmates might have been exposed to COVID-19 in April 2020. A non-state employee, though not at a CoreCivic facility, exposed three inmates. A week later, another non-state employee then exposed five inmates at a different prison. The next day, TDOC announced mass testing for staff, followed by inmate mass testing a week later. The Prison Policy Initiative found that as of that month, TDOC staff weren’t even required to wear masks (yet inmates were manufacturing masks and gowns). Although CoreCivic claims to have followed CDC guidelines, Tennessee state prisoners do not have access to alcohol-based hand-sanitizer.
By May 2020, there were 1,246 cases at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center alone.
The first COVID-19-related death reported by TDOC was a Trousdale inmate on May 4, 2020. That CoreCivic prison would go on to have the highest COVID-19 rate of any Tennessee state prison.
But Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for PPI, warns to take DOC data with more than a grain of salt. While compiling reports on COVID-19 in prison, PPI researchers found instances of states failing to do regular testing in order to avoid sharing results, inaccurately classifying causes of death and releasing parolees just in time to avoid counting them as in-custody deaths. Based on the quality and transparency of COVID-19 data in prisons, the UCLA Behind Bars Data Project gave Tennessee an F grade. Among other faults, Tennessee did not share prison populations, specific facility vaccination rates or active case numbers in staff.
Bertram points out that whether the highest COVID-19 rates come from state-operated or private prisons, the accountability still rests on the government for not setting stricter mandates. In its “States of Emergency” coronavirus report, PPI gave Tennessee an F grade, largely because the state didn’t significantly reduce prison populations during the pandemic. Bertram said, “Even if we’re talking about private prisons, this is still a state failure.”
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