Most Tennessee prisons are currently reporting few or no active cases of COVID-19. Three have even opened back up for visitation this month.
But an outbreak at a facility in northeast Tennessee has become one of the deadliest.
On the last day of September, rural Johnson County lifted its mask mandate. At the time, nearly 30 staffers at the Northeast Correctional Complex were home sick with the coronavirus. Within a week, more than 200 prisoners and 10 additional employees had tested positive.
Now, four have died. Only two facilities in Tennessee have reported more deaths.
The deadly outbreak comes as cases rise in small counties across the state. It also temporarily landed Johnson County, home to fewer than 18,000 residents, on the New York Times’ list of top 10 hot spots nationwide. The weekly number of cases per capita is one of the highest in the country, largely due to the prison cluster.
Over the course of the pandemic, other Tennessee counties have also become national hot spots due to prison outbreaks. The state appeared on the Times’ list after about 600 people tested positive at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in April and again when more than 1,300 cases were confirmed at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in May.
Like many correctional facilities, Northeast, Bledsoe and Trousdale Turner are all located in rural communities. When combined, they account for about 0.6% of the state’s population and 1.7% of its coronavirus cases.
But because the counties are so small, an outbreak at a prison can have an outsized impact. And as cases start to spread, employees can serve as vectors, since they are the only ones traveling in and out of prisons while visitation remains suspended at most facilities.
Since March, 25 state prisoners and two employees have died after testing positive for COVID-19. That’s out of more than 6,000 cases.
The most fatal outbreak killed seven people at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, which houses many of the state’s sickest prisoners. Six people have died at the South Central Correctional Complex, a private prison run by CoreCivic, where more than 1,200 prisoners tested positive for the virus.
Trousdale Turner and Whiteville Correctional Facility, also operated by CoreCivic, have reported three and two deaths, respectively. Bledsoe, the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center and the Northwest Correctional complex, which are all operated by the state, have each reported one death.
The state senate’s corrections subcommittee plans to evaluate the response to COVID-19 in Tennessee prisons this Thursday.
“From widespread outbreaks, mass testing, limiting visitors and a shortage of staff, Tennessee prisons have had to make significant adjustments during the pandemic, and this meeting will provide important insight into their challenges,” Sen. Ed Jackson, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a press release. “I hope these conversations will help us craft policies to specifically address these issues and help us better prepare for future viral outbreaks so we can secure the safety of our inmates and staff.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.