1,299 inmates test positive for virus at Tennessee prison

May 1, 2020 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee will begin testing all of its state prison inmates and staff after 1,299 of 2,444 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus at a privately run prison, state and prison officials said Friday.

Additionally, 50 of 281 prison workers tested positive at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, which is run by Tennessee-based CoreCivic. Across Tennessee’s prison system, the vast majority of those who have tested positive have not shown symptoms at the time they were tested, officials said. Two Trousdale inmates are now at the hospital with symptoms, CoreCivic said.

The outbreak that has affected about half of the facility’s prisoners further shows the capability of the coronavirus to spread quickly through the nation’s prisons.

“We’re going to have more cases, because we’re going to look for them,” state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in reference to increased testing at prisons.

The results follow widespread testing that found 583 of 2,322 inmates tested positive, largely without symptoms, at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. The system-wide testing will start next week, with CoreCivic in charge of testing at the other three state facilities it runs.

The spikes in prison COVID-19 cases come as Tennessee continues to unravel restrictions to allow some types of businesses to open in most of the state. The state on Friday reported more than 11,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 204 confirmed deaths.

Tennessee has more than 21,700 state inmates in adult facilities as of February. The state has 14 prisons, including four run by CoreCivic.

“The Department of Correction is taking a proactive approach to ensure all staff and the entire inmate population is tested for COVID-19,” state Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said in a news release. “Our sixth round of mass testing will begin early next week with the remaining 10 facilities conducting testing.”

Over the past few years, Trousdale has faced millions of dollars in state fines and a tough 2017 audit for staffing issues, errors in information provided to the state, and other shortcomings. The state has said it has upped its monitoring of Trousdale and that CoreCivic has made strides with compliance and boosted pay for its workers.

Parker said state staffers will be involved in CoreCivic’s testing, saying the company is “cooperating 100% with what we’re asking them to do.”

In March, a group led by former Davidson County public defender Dawn Deaner asked the state Supreme Court to order the release of a number of prisoners to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The Department of Correction’s website says “early release decisions are the authority of the Board of Parole.”

In mid-April, state corrections officials said they were considering testing all state inmates for the new coronavirus after positive tests came back for more than two dozen workers and five inmates. At that point, only 55 state inmates had been tested, and the state had just begun mass testing of 1,145 workers at Northwest Correctional Complex and the Bledsoe facility.

Since then, the state has said it was opting for a targeted approach, where widespread testing would occur at prisons that saw positive cases.

Before Friday, Trousdale had tested 250 inmates, 94 of whom tested positive. There were 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Trousdale staff before the latest round of contractor and staff testing, CoreCivic said.

Inmates who become symptomatic but don’t require additional care, such as respiratory support, are treated at prisons or at local hospitals. Staffers self-quarantine and are monitored for symptoms.

There have been 40 positive cases out of 902 staff and inmates tested at Northwest Correctional Complex and 40 positive cases out of 313 staff and inmates tested at Turney Center Industrial Complex.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.


Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.