Prisons have become the latest hot spot for the coronavirus in Tennessee. Officials announced Monday that more than 170 positive results have been confirmed at four correctional facilities.
But only a fraction of the prison population is being tested.
Dodie Gibson is scared to death. Her spouse is a transgender, HIV-positive woman whose compromised immune system makes her a dangerous target for COVID-19.
And to make matters worse, Gibson says, her spouse is sitting in a Petri dish. She’s serving a seven-year sentence at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, where inmates and employees have both tested positive for the virus.
“Everybody is just holding their breath every single minute, and then just hoping and praying for the person that just got a confirmed case, but also hoping that their loved one wasn’t near that person,” Gibson says. “You’re trying to be compassionate towards the [correctional officers] but also so angry towards this system.”
Like most Tennessee inmates, Gibson’s spouse hasn’t been tested yet. Of the state’s more than 21,000 prisoners, only about 500 had been tested, as of Monday. Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey says the state is taking a “tiered approach” — first screening inmates they think have been exposed.
“And then, if there a high prevalence of disease amongst those, then we expand to a more unit-based testing,” she said. “If there is a substantial proportion of positive cases amongst the unit, then we’ll expand to widespread, mass testing.”
That’s what happened this weekend at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, where 162 of the prison’s approximately 2,500 inmates have tested positive so far. One of those prisoners lives in the same pod as Gloria Berkley’s son, and she worries he’ll get sick, too.
“I’m afraid,” Berkley says. “I’m very, very, very afraid that, you know, he may catch it, because, he is — they are in such close proximity.”
Social distancing is virtually impossible in Tennessee’s prisons — which are operating at about 93% capacity, according to the latest data released last month.
The Department of Correction halted all volunteer programs and visits in mid-March, to limit the number of people traveling in and out of its facilities. The goal was to reduce the risk of an outbreak. But Berkley says it’s been hard not seeing her son, who’s only 22.
“He’s trying to keep in high spirits,” she says. “He doesn’t want to scare me.”
When they talk on the phone, though, Berkley says her son “sounds scared and down.” So she’s giving him the best advice she can: Stay away from people and make yourself a mask.
The Department of Correction says all employees and inmates have now been given masks, and state Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said at Gov. Bill Lee’s daily press conference Monday that the department is doing “aggressive” contact tracing.
“We’re spending a lot of resources and spending a lot of time in following up on these positive cases or even suspect cases,” he said, adding that some asymptomatic prisoners have also been screened.
But Jeannie Alexander, a prison reform advocate who also has a loved one behind bars, says officials need to do more to protect both inmates and staff.
“Until we test everyone — every single imprisoned person and every single staff member — we’re not going to have an accurate picture,” she says.
Alexander says she’s been crying out of frustration a lot lately. What happens if sick inmates are afraid to ask for a test, she wonders, because they don’t want to be isolated in solitary confinement? What if scores of employees test positive in prisons that are already understaffed?
“I’m not trying to frighten other people or think of some doomsday scenario or something,” Alexander says. But she worries that officials haven’t done enough to plan for the worst-case scenario.
“Yeah, I’m afraid,” she says. “I’m not just afraid for my loved ones, but for everyone else that’s in there.”
Alexander is calling on the governor, the Board of Parole — any official with some sway — to take action before it’s too late.
Samantha Max is a Report for America Corps Member.