Rolling protest: Not sentenced to COVID
A rolling protest outside outside of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in May called for the release of people held at the Shelby County Jail. A group of Tennessee lawyers filed a petition Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to mandate reduced populations in jails and juvenile detention centers. Photo by Johnathan Martin for MLK50.

A group of Tennessee lawyers filed a petition Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to mandate reduced populations in jails and juvenile detention centers along with stringent coronavirus protections for those incarcerated as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across the state.

The petition argues that although jails and juvenile detention centers reduced the number of detainees in the spring as the pandemic began to grip the country, the populations have steadily climbed, and in many places are approaching or have reached pre-pandemic levels. Those facilities should again reduce their pre-trial populations and implement stronger coronavirus safety measures, the lawyers said.

The petition was filed by lawyers from Just City, a Memphis criminal justice reform advocacy organization; Choosing Justice Initiative, a Nashville non-profit law firm that fights wealth-based disparities; Disability Rights Tennessee, which advocates for the rights of people with disabilities; and the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Lawyers filed an initial petition in late March, but the state high court rejected it in April. Instead, the court said it had required jurisdictions across the state to develop written plans to reduce populations, which had resulted in a 30% decrease since March 13.

But the lawyers said the court didn’t continue to monitor populations or safety protocol, and the numbers have since risen.

“A lot of people worked hard to get the jail population down really fast in March; I don’t want to take that away,” said Just City’s executive director Josh Spickler. “We made a concerted effort as a community. But when the novelty of that and the risk of everything started to settle into our society and our communities, we stopped with a sense of urgency and populations continued to go up.”

The new petition asks the court to require each judicial district to submit a written plan demonstrating how it will reduce its jail and juvenile detention populations. Those facilities should be at no more than 50% of their capacity, the petition says, so detainees can safely socially distance and quarantine. To do that, the lawyers said those plans should include ways to eliminate unaffordable bail for many inmates and release people with medical conditions who are not a risk to public safety.

The petition also asks the court to require every jail test each new inmate for the coronavirus, issue them a mask, and isolate them from the general population according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Detainees who test positive should be quarantined until they test negative twice, the petition says.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich’s office did not respond to a request for comment in calls and emails late Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. 

In March, Weirich talked about reducing the jail population during the pandemic in a YouTube video where she answered questions received by her office. She said they used assessments to keep only the worst offenders inside, dismissed hundreds of cases of recently charged people and released those charged with low-level crimes.

Shahidah Jones, coordinator and committee member of the official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, has been involved in the fight against the money bail system that keeps poor people held in pretrial detention. “We think the jail population should be reduced anyway but we definitely feel like it should be reduced as a COVID protective measure,” she said.

“I think that COVID has shown us how little regard folks have for people once the stigma of jail gets attached, whether they are guilty or innocent.”

Shahidah Jones, coordinator and committee member of the official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter

“I think that COVID has shown us how little regard folks have for people once the stigma of jail gets attached, whether they are guilty or innocent. And the reality is whether they are guilty or innocent they are still human.”

Across the state, the number of inmates in county jails rose from around 20,700 in April, when jails worked to reduce the number of detainees, to nearly 24,600 at the end of October, according to a report from the Tennessee Department of Correction. 

In Shelby County, the jail population at 201 Poplar downtown was about 2,600 at the beginning of the year, officials have said. In late April, the population was down to 1,757 people but increased to 1,918 detainees on Dec. 18, according to John Morris, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. The Juvenile Court Detention Center has seen a drop since April, when 62 children were detained; now the facility houses 38 people.

While the jail populations rise, the number of coronavirus cases have, too, making Tennessee among the worst states in the country for average daily case rate. As of Tuesday, Tennessee has more than 534,000 cases, 6,269 deaths and 2,888 hospitalizations, which lag by a day. The rise in cases prompted Gov. Bill Lee to call the state “ground zero for a surge in sickness.”  

Shelby County has tallied more than 62,000 total cases and 826 deaths. Though the positivity rate of 12.6% has dropped slightly from 14.5% in early December, it’s still above the state’s goal of 10%.

Up to Dec. 18, 269 detainees had tested positive, with five active cases, according to Morris. There were also 291 positive cases among staff, including more than 40 active cases, he said. Inmates are screened when they’re booked and are tested if they’re symptomatic, he added.

In the filing, lawyers argue that the court has ordered numerous changes to the criminal justice system – including mandating face coverings in courthouses or suspending in-person jury trials – but has not followed through on its plan to monitor judicial districts’ jail population and safety protocols.

They also ask the court to mandate judicial districts obtain monthly coronavirus data, like information on number of tests administered, positive cases, hospitalizations, deaths and people in quarantine. 

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Just City are also fighting a lawsuit against the Shelby County Sheriff’s office on behalf of medically vulnerable detainees. In that suit, lawyers say the jail’s approach to the pandemic is “unsafe and inadequate.” A spokesman for the sheriff’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment via email and phone. That case is ongoing.

Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.



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