Family members express concern over COVID-19 cases in TN prisons, efforts continue for releases

Coronavirus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — On Friday, the Tennessee Department of Health announced more than 1,246 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center. Meanwhile, the company that operates the center, CoreCivic, announced 1,299 inmates tested positive and 50 staff members tested positive.

News 2 spoke to family members who expressed concern for their loved ones at the facility, many chose not to speak on camera.

Susan Vermillion, said she doesn’t know whether or not her husband is one of those infected.

“They could’ve prevented this and they did nothing,” Vermillion said.

In a statement released by CoreCivic on Friday, the company said across all inmates and staff, only two of the positive cases displayed symptoms.

On CoreCivic’s website, the company said they’ve implemented practices to include, personal protective equipment, disinfection, and social distancing.

Vermillion’s husband has been at the facility since the end of January and she shared,

“At Trousdale, they didn’t do anything until about three weeks ago, they gave each inmate a mask and a bar of soap. There’s no way to social distance some of them, they’re in pods.”

On Friday, Governor Bill Lee announced a massive testing initiative would begin for all of the state’s prison employees and inmates.

Criminal defense attorney, David Raybin, says that won’t be enough.

“I just pray that someone doesn’t die—but there have been deaths at other prisons in the United States and once that happens there’s a lot of finger-pointing, ‘Why didn’t we do something?'”

He and other attorneys want the prison population to be reduced, they’ve sent letters to the state’s Board of Parole advocating for prisoners who’ve been granted parole, to be released.

“These people have already been vetted, they’ve been found qualified to be paroled.”

During Friday’s press conference, Lee said right now, they have no plans for prison releases.

Raybin believes the state should reconsider, “They need to take some steps to remove these folks as quickly as they can, in a measured way to reduce the health hazard. Because as you reduce the population, you’re saving the lives of those that remain …and the prison guards …and the families of the guards.”

Raybin shared, “…there’s over a thousand people who have been paroled, but the Parole Board says you can’t physically be released until you complete a program in the facility – but the program doesn’t exist. The counselors are not coming to the prison because the virus is there, so they just sit there waiting for a program that no longer exists.”

He said he believes this could be the solution, “release the person and order them to have a comparable program on the outside.”

He continued saying, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a penitentiary.”

Vermillion said her husband has a pre-existing condition, and she wonders what would happen if her husband contracted the virus, “They’re human beings, they’re people and they have families. They’re not all rapists and murderers.”

Raybin said so far he has been able to accelerate the release of at least six clients, working pro bono, he said he’s been able to accelerate the release of about 100 people across the state.

News 2 reached out to CoreCivic about Vermillion’s claims on Friday afternoon. After the story aired, CoreCivic responded and directed us to this webpage and also shared, “Our facility staff have worked diligently from the onset of this pandemic to keep an open line of communication between staff and inmates. We encourage inmates to share information with their family members. Effective immediately, CoreCivic will launch a 24-hour COVID-19 information hotline for family members of incarcerated individuals. The hotline will operated 24/7 and be monitored by a live operator. The hotline can be reached at (615) 263-3200.”

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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