As the spread of COVID-19 continues across Tennessee and the United States, it is more important than ever that government officials follow public health experts’ recommendations to ensure a response plan that protects the health, safety and civil liberties of all people.
The ACLU of Tennessee is monitoring the situation to ensure that the response is grounded in science and public health, not politics, and is no more intrusive upon civil liberties than is absolutely necessary.
Along with our partners, we have been taking action during the pandemic to:
- Protect individuals in custody and keep individuals out of custody
- Ensure fairness, equity and non-discrimination in the provision of essential services, government support and health care
- Ensure access to the ballot box and census participation
- Protect access to abortion
Learn more about ACLU-TN’s COVID-19 response in different areas below.
Protecting incarcerated people
People in prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and detention centers – where social distancing is nearly impossible and access to hygiene supplies like sanitizer and soap can be very limited – are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus.
A new epidemiological model recently released by the ACLU and academic research partners shows that COVID-19 could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people nationwide than current projections stipulate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced. The findings indicate that — even if communities across the United States continue practicing social distancing and following public health guidance — they will still experience much higher death rates if no substantial action is taken to reduce jail populations.
To limit outbreaks of COVID-19, we are calling on state and local officials to reduce jail and prison populations and provide re-entry services; to develop plans quickly in coordination with local public health officials to ensure the health and safety of those who live and work behind bars; to provide access to testing and personal protective equipment; and to collect and release data on infection rates in state and local facilities.
- Filed a lawsuit seeking emergency release of medically vulnerable inmates in Shelby County Jail (Memphis)
- Sent a letter to county health departments, including those counties with Tennessee’s largest jails, urging access to testing and PPE in jails, as well as development of a plan for immediate action once coronavirus is detected in a facility
- Sent a letter to Governor Lee urging him to use his broad powers as set out in the Tennessee State Constitution and under state law to reduce the state prison population by safely releasing individuals 1) whose sentence would end in the next year, 2) who are currently being held on a technical supervision violation, and 3) who are especially vulnerable if infected by COVID-19 and have sentences that would end in the next two years.
- Sent a letter to the governor requesting that he report on COVID-19 incidents and testing in Tennessee prisons and juvenile detention facilities at his daily press conferences. The Tennessee Department of Correction began releasing data on incidents of testing and infection by race, gender and prison later that month.
- Sent a letter to Tennessee Supreme Court urging release of pre-trial detainees, postponement of unnecessary hearings for non-detained defendants and civil cases, avoiding detention for violations of probation and parole, and collaboration with local law enforcement officials and prosecutors to limit arrests to the most serious offenses and to increase medical releases
- Sent a letter to sheriffs statewide urging issuance of citations over arrest, education of people in custody and staff regarding the virus and prevention measures, provision of hygiene supplies, staffing plans for services provided by detainees, housing for people exposed to the virus, precautions and emergency release for vulnerable populations and ways to maintain visitation virtually.
- Sent a letter to Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker regarding education of people in custody and staff regarding the virus and prevention measures, provision of hygiene supplies, staffing plans (including for services provided by detainees), screening and testing, treatment, housing for people exposed to the virus, precautions for vulnerable populations and data collection.
- TAKE ACTION: Urge Governor Lee to reduce Tennessee’s prison population
- Tennessee Department of Correction 24-hour COVID-19 information line for family members of incarcerated individuals: 1-866-858-0380
- CoreCivic 24-hour COVID-19 information hotline for family members of incarcerated individuals: 615-263-3200
- Tennessee Department of Correction data on incidents of testing and infection by race, gender and prison
Equity and Non-Discrimination
COVID-19 is ravaging many parts of the United States, but nowhere more than in Black communities.
The Census Bureau estimates Tennessee’s population to be 17% Black or African-American. While the numbers change frequently, as of the start of May, Black Tennesseans accounted for a reported 20% of positive cases and 31% of deaths from the virus. This figure excludes people identified as “multiracial,” and identification of race was still pending in an additional 32% of cases and 1% of deaths, so the disproportionate impact in the Black community could be even worse than currently available numbers reflect.
The issues facing the Black community stem from generations of neglect and discrimination in health care, the economy and the criminal justice system.
According to the CDC, nearly 90% of patients hospitalized with coronavirus had one or more underlying health conditions. Black people suffer disproportionately from asthma, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and hypertension. Chronic diseases like these in the Black community are linked to structural disparities such as air quality, food deserts, a lack of accessible health care, underemployment, stress and societal disregard.
Black workers are also more likely to be employed in front-line, essential jobs, increasing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
And jails and prisons are ticking time bombs for an outbreak, with little to no ability to socially distance, properly sanitize or protect older and vulnerable populations. In 2018, Black people made up 17% of Tennessee’s population but 40% of its prison population.
The deck was stacked against communities of color before this pandemic even began. The ACLU of Tennessee will continue to fight for racial equity and fair treatment of all people during the pandemic and beyond.
- “Demographic data vital to fight coronavirus in black, brown communities,” op-ed in the Tennessean by ACLU-TN Policy Director Brandon Tucker
- Sent a letter to mayors regarding transparency, public communications, quarantines and science, protection of vulnerable populations, equity and non-discrimination in distribution of resources, declaring testing sites as safe zones for immigrants, paid sick leave and unemployment insurance coverage.
- Sent Letter to Governor Lee regarding transparency, public communications, quarantines and science, protection of vulnerable populations, equity and non-discrimination in distribution of resources, declaring testing sites as safe zones for immigrants, paid sick leave and unemployment insurance coverage.
Free, Fair and Safe Elections
No one should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. For many, the safest way to vote during this election cycle may be to vote by mail.
Currently Tennesseans who want to vote by mail must fit certain, limited categories.
We are calling on Tennessee officials at all levels to make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to vote by mail in 2020 and to prepare for a likely surge in absentee ballots. Lawmakers should also ensure that voting in person is safe for voters, poll workers and election officials.
Refusing to expand access to early voting and voting by mail in the midst of this pandemic is voter suppression, plain and simple. Politicians who refuse to adopt these commonsense measures are playing politics with peoples’ lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting African-American communities and urban areas the hardest. Failing to expand mail-in voting and to provide safe in-person voting options will disenfranchise the very communities of color who have faced the worst forms of voter suppression throughout American history.
As we saw in Wisconsin’s primary, failing to provide voters with opportunities to vote by mail and safe options for voting in-person puts the health of our democracy itself at risk.
Abortion is Essential Healthcare
Especially during a pandemic, it is crucial that women have access to a full range of health services, including abortion, to ensure their health and wellbeing. Delaying abortion care or creating additional barriers can make it impossible to access safe, legal care and can pose dangerous risks to a pregnant person. Yet numerous states, including Tennessee, have attempted to use the pandemic as a pretext for attempting to ban or limit access to abortion.
On April 8, Governor Lee issued an executive order limiting “non-emergency” health care procedures. That order banned all abortions other than medication abortions (which involve taking pills and are only available until 11 weeks of pregnancy), despite leading national medical groups agreeing that abortion procedures are essential and time-sensitive. ACLU-TN joined with our partners to file a federal lawsuit challenging this order, and we won at both the federal court and appellate court levels, protecting access to abortion in Tennessee during the pandemic.
Everybody’s situation is different and people should be able to make their own decisions about continuing or ending a pregnancy in conversation with their loved ones and health providers, without government interference. We need our politicians to be working to protect the health and safety of our community, not using the pandemic to attempt to ban abortion.
- Secured a ruling from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding lower court ruling protecting access to abortions in Tennessee during the pandemic
- Filed and won a preliminary injunction in federal court protecting abortion access in Tennessee during the pandemic
- “What Happened When I Needed an Abortion During the Pandemic,” By a Mother in Tennessee