On April 9, 2021, a federal judge approved an agreement reached between local and national civil rights advocates and the Shelby County sheriff to improve jail conditions to protect people from widespread infection, serious injury and death from COVID-19.
The agreement guarantees that the jail will implement rigorous monitoring and reporting; additional jail inspections; improved airflow and ventilation measures to keep people safe from airborne transmission of COVID-19; better quality protective equipment for people being detained in the jail; continued efforts to expedite release for those who are disabled and medically vulnerable; improved social distancing; and other enhancements that will better protect people living and working in the facility.
As part of the settlement, an independent jail inspector, Mike Brady, was appointed. He visited Shelby County Jail last month and filed this report with the parties on Monday, April 12. Here are some key findings and recommendations:
- Reduce the jail population by 50% [Finding #1, Recommendation #1 (p. 28)]
- “Time is of the essence given the high vaccine refusal rate which is approximately 75%, The high refusal rate according to high ranking officials in the Shelby County Jail is in part because of the distrust of government by the African-American population stemming back to the ‘Tuskegee Experiment’ and other civil rights atrocities. Moreover, at the time of my inspection only 22 inmates had been vaccinated.” [Finding #1, Recommendation #1 (p. 28)]
- “The Shelby County Jail and Wellpath should create a comprehensive, culturally competent vaccine education program for current and future inmates that will demonstrate to the inmate population that the vaccines are safe and effective.” [Finding #1, Recommendation #2 (p. 28)]
- “When bail is considered in Shelby County, the judicial commissioner setting bail does not take into account the economic ability or inability of the detainee to post bond. . . . According to data I reviewed, as of September 2020, there were 351 inmates housed in the Shelby County Jail with bonds of less than $2,000. While I do not have the most recent data, I have no reason to believe the numbers are substantially different.” [Finding #5 (p. 30)]
- “The Court . . . should take into consideration an inmate’s financial ability to post a bond as well as if they are a current threat to public safety when making release decisions, bond decisions, and placements in structured and supervised environments in the community.” [Finding #5, Recommendation #1 (p. 30)]
- “The Court Expeditor function is completely ineffective in presenting Class and Subclass member healthcare information to the Court for them to consider in ROR decisions, Bond decisions, and safe alternative placements in structured and supervised environments in the community.” [Finding #3 (p. 28)]
- “Staffing shortages at the Shelby County Jail cause Class and Subclass members to be locked in their cells oftentimes for days if not weeks at a time. Class and Subclass members have not gotten any outdoor large muscle group exercise since my last inspection in June of 2020.” [Finding #4 (p. 29)]
The inspector’s complete report can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Shelby-County-Jail-First-Follow-Up-Covid-19-Inspection-Final-Final-4-11-2021-.pdf
The agreement was reached in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; Just City; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steve Mulroy on behalf of people incarcerated at the Shelby County Jail.