As COVID-19 has surged throughout Tennessee again over the past few months, fueled by the Delta variant and largely enabled by low vaccination rates, the virus has also quietly returned to the state’s jails and prisons. Case counts among incarcerated people have risen again, although no new deaths among the state’s prison population or in Nashville’s jails have been reported.
Last year, COVID outbreaks rippled through Tennessee’s prison system, infecting thousands of incarcerated people and staff. At one point in May 2020, two of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country were Tennessee prisons. Forty-two incarcerated people and five staff members have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
As of Aug. 25, there are 61 incarcerated people in Tennessee prisons who have tested positive for the virus, with 45 still awaiting test results. Most of the confirmed positive cases come from clusters at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (21 cases) and another at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (18 cases). Those are small outbreaks when compared to last year, and while they could of course grow, this summer’s wave has come after vaccines were made available in the state’s prisons. The uptake among incarcerated people has so far outpaced that of people on the outside — Tennessee Department of Correction spokesperson Sarah Gallagher tells the Scene that, according to TDOC’s chief medical officer, roughly 60 percent of the more than 20,000 people incarcerated in the state have been fully vaccinated. By comparison, roughly 43 percent of people statewide have been fully vaccinated.
It’s less clear how willing prison officers and staff have been to get the shot. The department’s data shows that 3,330 doses of vaccine have been administered to TDOC staff as of Aug. 25. There are 5,025 people employed by the department. Beyond that, Gallagher says the department “cannot accurately track the number of fully vaccinated staff, as many receive the vaccinations in the community.”
Vaccination rates among prison officers and staff around the country have tended to be lower than those of the general population, leading to calls to mandate vaccination for prison staff, police officers and others. In Tennessee, though, the state legislature and the governor have banned such mandates for almost all groups.
As community spread of the virus has increased over the past two months, so has transmission in local jails, where conditions can be ripe for outbreaks. A recent court-appointed expert raised serious concerns about overcrowding and ineffective vaccination efforts at the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, which is at the center of a pending lawsuit over conditions there.
In Nashville, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office reported on Aug. 30 that 132 people jailed in the city had tested positive for COVID-19 and that a total of 557 were on some level of restriction as a result. But the number of jailed people who have been vaccinated is unclear. The sheriff’s office referred questions about vaccination rates in city jails to the Metro Public Health Department. But beyond confirming that the department continually offers vaccination at DCSO facilities, the department has so far not been able to provide any data about how many people have taken them up on it.