Two days after the Tennessee Department of Correction announced that at least 170 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, it’s launching a hotline to field questions from people with friends and family behind bars.
The department says a “live analyst” will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions about COVID-19 testing, the prison system’s response to the coronavirus and protective measures that have already been taken.
TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said in a press release that inmates have been encouraged to “stay in close contact with their families through frequent, no-cost telephone calls and through letters.”
State prisons halted in-person visitations on March 12 to limit the number of people potentially carrying the virus from flowing in and out of its facilities. In the meantime, inmates who can’t afford calls through the prisons’ paid phone service can make two free, five-minute phone calls per week through the end of April.
However, multiple people whose family members are incarcerated have told WPLN News that they’ve had trouble getting in contact with both their loved ones and prison officials in recent weeks.
Andrea Murphy, for instance, never knows when she’ll get a phone call from her 25-year-old son. He’s serving an eight-year sentence at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, where the state department of health says two inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.
As fear about an outbreak in the 2,500-person prison ramps up, Murphy says inmates’ access to phones has been limited. The lines are too long to make a call some days, she says. And Murphy’s afraid her son could get sick, and she wouldn’t even know it.
“You probably wouldn’t even get a phone call if something happens to your child,” she says. “I feel like they’re trying to keep a lot of issues hush-hush. They’re only giving so much information.”
A spokesperson for CoreCivic, the private company that manages the prison, told WPLN News in an email that it has listed information about its response to COVID-19 on its website and is referring all media inquiries regarding inmate cases to the Department of Correction.
Tamika Robinson’s husband is incarcerated at Turney Center Industrial Complex, where 20 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 75 results are still pending, according to TDOC. She says the prison called her on April 6 to tell her that her husband had been hospitalized since April 2, after complaining of shortness of breath.
Robinson says her husband has since tested negative for the coronavirus. But she couldn’t understand why no one had informed her sooner, since she’s her husband’s only emergency contact.
TDOC said in an email that its policy is “an individual identified by the offender at intake will be notified in the event of an inmate’s serious illness, injury, surgery, or death in a timely and compassionate manner.”
Commissioner Parker said the new phone line will serve as another tool to keep families informed.
“We are all working hand-in-hand during this time,” he said. “I appreciate the cooperation of the inmate population in maintaining a high level of sanitation and adhering to the necessary adjustments we have had to make.”
TDOC says all inmates and employees have been given masks and that officials are using contact tracing to track COVID-19 in prisons. However, the state said earlier this week that it doesn’t plan to test all inmates for the coronavirus at this time.
Anyone with questions can reach the hotline at (866) 858-0380. TDOC has also answered frequently asked questions on its website.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.