Another round of mass testing has uncovered nearly 1,000 cases of the coronavirus at a Tennessee prison, with more results coming.
CoreCivic, which manages the facility, says nearly all are asymptomatic. But prisoners’ loved ones say they’re hearing a different story.
Jeannie Alexander gets lots of worried phone calls from people inside the South Central Correctional Facility. Even when a deadly virus isn’t spreading inside the walls, the former prison chaplain regularly hears from dozens of men and their loved ones.
In August, Alexander says, the callers started to sound even more anxious than normal.
“The concerns were that it appeared to them that a lot more people were sick than had been,” she says.
The men told Alexander they felt fatigued. Some couldn’t smell or taste. Others had a dry cough or an upset stomach. But unless you had a fever, they said, getting a test was near impossible.
“And then, at around, I would say August the 21st, August the 22nd, I started getting more phone calls about a lack of staffing,” she says.
According to CoreCivic, 66 employees have tested positive for the virus. Less than half have been medically cleared to return to work.
A spokesperson could not immediately provide the total number of unfilled positions at the prison. It’s unclear how many more employees could be forced to stay home after mass testing of staff concludes this week. Prison employees are supposed to self-quarantine if they test positive.
The staffing shortages have Tamela Bailey on edge. Her fiancé is still recovering from a stabbing this spring. He’s praying he doesn’t get sick.
“Who wouldn’t be nervous? Who wouldn’t be scared?” she wonders. “He don’t want to die, you know what I’m saying. Not in no facility.”
On Monday, the Tennessee Department of Correction noted the first death at the prison in a spreadsheet it publishes to track COVID-19 testing and cases in the prison system. But neither TDOC nor CoreCivic mentioned the death in statements they shared with WPLN News.
As of Monday evening, 974 prisoners were positive, 66 had recovered and 189 test results were still pending. Spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist says 10 prisoners showed symptoms before mass testing began, but that all others were asymptomatic when swabbed.
“This is consistent with other correctional systems, which are reporting that 96% of inmates who tested positive are asymptomatic,” she says in an emailed statement.
Similar statistics have been widely cited by state officials. Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey called prisons outbreaks “a head scratcher” at a press conference this spring. However, the study the 96% figure comes from is based solely on data from four state prison systems.
Many states have been slow to conduct mass testing at correctional facilities. Plus, the term “asymptomatic” is largely misunderstood and frequently mistaken for “pre-symptomatic,” when a person infected with the virus hasn’t yet started exhibiting symptoms but may actually be more contagious than someone who is.
TDOC says prisoners who test positive for COVID-19 but aren’t showing symptoms will “receive daily medical monitoring and health assessments.” Those who develop symptoms will either be treated at the prison or taken to the hospital.
CoreCivic draws increasing scrutiny
The South Central outbreak is the second-largest at a Tennessee prison since the start of the pandemic. This spring, more than 1,300 inmates and employees tested positive for the coronavirus at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, which is also operated by CoreCivic.
The company accounts for about 77% of coronavirus cases and half of the deaths in the state prison system, though it houses just over one-third of inmates. Last week, WPLN News uncovered an outbreak at another CoreCivic facility in Nashville that wasn’t reported to the public, because the prison isn’t technically part of the Department of Correction or the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, which both regularly share COVID-19 data with the media.
Tamela Bailey says she’s desperate for information. She calls South Central every other day, and the outcome is almost always the same. There’s either no answer at all, or someone says they’ll call back. And then they never do.
Bailey says her fiancé tries to keep her upbeat when they talk on the phone. But she says it’s hard. For now, Bailey says, she’ll be praying for everyone who’s stuck inside.
“I’m just terrified,” she says and sighs, sounding dejected. “I mean, I just, I try to stay focused and keep God in the midst of it, because I’m a true believer of God. And I just pray that something happens, the doors open and set him free.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.