When attorney Will Conway went days without hearing from a client housed at CoreCivic’s Metro Detention Facility, he started to worry.
His client, who had landed in prison for a probation violation related to a nonviolent crime, is at high risk for complications from COVID-19 because he’s older and has diabetes. So Conway hoped to secure an early release.
But his client kept missing court dates. And Conway says he hasn’t been getting much information.
“We just basically receive emails from the clerk’s office saying: ‘CoreCivic is not transporting inmates because they’re in quarantine.’ That’s about all we get,” Conway says.
Then, Conway found out his client had tested positive for COVID-19. According to CoreCivic, he’s one of 170 MDF prisoners who got the virus.
More than one third of the 460 men and women at the private prison in Nashville have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks. But the outbreak has not been publicized.
A special agreement between the state, Metro and CoreCivic has left the facility in a sort of transparency limbo.
Nearly all, including Conway’s client, have since recovered. But those cases were never reported by the Tennessee Department of Correction.
The state agency has been updating a COVID-19 spreadsheet on its website every few days, to help both journalists and prisoners’ loved ones to keep track of outbreaks in correctional facilities. The graph details the number of tests, positive and negative results, recoveries and deaths in state prisons, along with a racial and ethnic breakdown of coronavirus cases.
The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office has also kept the public in the loop by sharing its COVID-19 data in regular emails to journalists. But MDF’s coronavirus numbers were also left out of those weekly updates.
A CoreCivic spokesperson says the company sends a daily report to its contract monitor at the sheriff’s office and also works closely with the Metro Public Health Department. And, each week, the company reports its COVID testing and case numbers to the Tennessee Corrections Institute, a state agency that oversees local correctional facilities.
But because the facility isn’t technically part of the state prison system or the sheriff’s office, it hasn’t been included in either agency’s reports to the public. TDOC says one other prison in Shelby County operates under a similar arrangement.
That will change in October, when the sheriff’s office takes over the Nashville prison. CoreCivic’s CEO announced last month that the company would end its contract with Metro after nearly three decades of running the prison. That was in response to growing criticism from members of the Metro Council and activists who oppose for-profit prisons.
That criticism has grown louder during the pandemic, as outbreaks have rippled through CoreCivic facilities throughout the state. They’ve accounted for nearly half of the prison system’s 3,300 coronavirus cases and five of its nine deaths. (Prisons managed by CoreCivic house just over one third of the state’s inmate population.)
CoreCivic said in an emailed statement to WPLN News that the company has “rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.