How Shelby County Jail Can Promote Safety and Protect Prisoners From COVID-19

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Rev. Earle Fisher and Cardell Orrin

An underestimated issue in our community is the dispute over COVID-19 conditions at the Shelby County Jail, where a federal court recently ruled that the jail population was “at great risk” from COVID- 19.

There are clear signs that instead of responding to issues identified by the court, the prison is doing the minimum required by law, and sometimes less than that. Meanwhile, the prison remains fertile ground for COVID-19, which has already killed three MPs and sickened hundreds of people in detention. Our sheriff can and must do better.

Last year, remand prisoners who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19 sued the prison, claiming that social distancing was impossible at 201 Poplar, and that COVID was rampant. With staff and inmates cycling around the building on a regular basis, these conditions threatened the health of the entire community.

Linda Kee tried to bring personal supplies, including protective masks, to her nephew Ronald Rhyne, who is locked up in Shelby County Jail for assault.  Kee says she is refused even though the protective measures at the prison are lax;  at one point, Rhyne had to wear the same disposable paper mask for over a month.

This spring, the parties agreed to a consent decree, which the court approved. The decree calls for a court-appointed independent monitor to inspect the prison and make recommendations on COVID-19 testing, quarantine, vaccinations and other related matters. Hopes were high that the prison had passed a milestone.

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That hope was quickly dashed

Justice Sheryl Lipman recently issued a painstaking 24-page order detailing the many ways the prison broke the promise of the consent decree and, in some cases, did not even do what it claimed to do.

The independent observer, whom the sheriff himself appointed, said the vaccination program there is “completely ineffective”.

The vaccination rate at Shelby County Jail is less than 25%, a level that another expert called “shockingly low,” well below that in prisons and prisons nationwide. Indeed, just down the street from the County Correction Center, the vaccination rate is over 70%.

Cardell Orin, Executive Director of Memphis Stand for Children, speaks at the Memphis People's City Budget Summit on Saturday July 31, 2021 in Memphis, TN.

The reports paint a picture of both neglect and sometimes outright opposition to doing the right thing. The prison did not follow CDC guidelines for jails and jails. Responses to requests for medical treatment are often late and ineffective.

The jail declined an offer for county corrections officials to go to jail to help with the immunizations. The prison refuses to monitor its vaccination rate, testifying that it does not consider it important. Space does not allow for a complete list of issues.

Ester Mitchell Patrick, left, and Linda Kee tried to bring personal supplies, including protective masks, to their nephew Ronald Rhyne, who is locked up in Shelby County Jail for assault.  Kee says she is refused even though the protective measures at the prison are lax;  at one point, Rhyne had to wear the same disposable paper mask for over a month.

We must treat detainees, who have not been convicted of any crime, with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.

While Sheriff Floyd Bonner ran for office as a Democrat, it’s hard to say how the sheriff’s behavior in this case would be any different from a regular Republican sheriff. Unfortunately, this is part of Sheriff Bonner’s position on federal oversight of juvenile court and efforts to reform the presence of police in public schools.

Earle fisher

You might expect damning reports from an independent inspector and a clear direction from a federal judge would spur the prison to act. But instead, unfortunately, he hollowed out his heels. He decided to end the consent decree barely five months after it entered, when the COVID-19 situation was still dire.

When the court ordered that the decree remain in effect, the prison appealed against the order and requested that the decree be suspended while that appeal proceeds.

These procedural maneuvers will only delay much needed corrective action when time is of the essence.

Rather than do what his department has agreed to do and listen to the judge, the sheriff appears to be listening to his attorneys, a private firm in Jackson, Tennessee, which has so far raised $ 341,000 in taxpayer-funded fees. .

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There is always a better way

The sheriff can and should:

  • Work with county corrections to increase immunization through education and incentives for the inmate population (as well as all staff who are not vaccinated).
  • Use on-site medical staff to perform regular vaccinations, rather than relying on city paramedics who may only appear sporadically.
  • Provide routine vaccinations and COVID testing to all newly admitted inmates.
  • Require weekly testing for all unvaccinated staff.
  • Implement widespread, routine and rapid testing for all inmates who report symptoms of COVID; when the tests are positive, test all people in close contact and quickly quarantine all those affected.
  • Use its authority over crime suspects, and its influence with local judges who set bail, to reduce the prison population to allow for social distancing.

As a general rule, the sheriff should implement the recommendations of the Independent Observer and drop the appeal. He should devote his energy to complying with the decree of consent he accepted, rather than trying to get out of it. The emphasis should be on security, not on winning the court.

Reverend Earle Fisher is the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis with a doctorate from the University of Memphis.

Cardell Orrin is the executive director of the nonprofit Stand For Children and a part-time policy consultant.


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