Tennessee begins COVID-19 testing for 406 prisoners at Bledsoe County Correctional after 12 test positive

In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020 file photo, a technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island. A series of missteps at the nation's top public health agency caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, hobbling the federal response as the pandemic spread across the country like wildfire, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Department of Correction on Saturday began testing of 406 prisoners at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville for the coronavirus.

The action comes after 10 staffers at the 2,500-inmate facility located about 60 miles north of Chattanooga were found last week to be positive but asymptomatic for COVID-19, which led officials to begin contact tracing at the facility. That apparently led to another round of testing for a group of inmates which by Friday revealed that 12 prisoners at the regional prison were infected with the coronavirus.

Another four test results were pending, and there was one negative result in the initial round of prisoner testing.

All the efforts came as several contract medical professionals earlier this month described to the Times Free Press how they had quit their jobs at Bledsoe over what they considered unsafe conditions.

In a news release on Friday, Correction Commissioner Tony Parker characterized the latest effort as a "strategic proactive targeted plan based on aggressive contact tracing to addressing the novel coronavirus pandemic."

Department spokesman Robert Reburn said Saturday afternoon that testing has started, and 406 inmates are scheduled for the COVID-19 screens. Results will later be made available on the department's website, at tn.gov/correction.

The additional testing for inmates is being conducted by the state Department of Correction in conjunction with Gov. Bill Lee's Unified Command and state Department of Health officials, Reburn said.

On April 9, prison officials, along with the state health and military departments, launched a testing initiative for all employees at the facility following the positive tests of two state employees and a contract worker. Also included in the mass testing were workers at Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville.

All told, the testing showed that 19 state and contract workers at both facilities, among a total of 1,145 personnel tested, showed positive results for COVID-19.

During Lee's Thursday news briefing on the continuing health and economic crisis, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey was asked if prisoners weren't entitled to the same level of concern regarding testing.

"They absolutely are entitled to all of the testing abilities and all of the same medical care as anybody else," said Piercey, a physician. "I am in daily contact with the commissioner of correction as well as his medical director. And I get at least once daily if not twice daily updates on any person in the entire Department of Correction system that may have symptoms."

Piercey said at the time that "we currently have several dozen pending tests on inmates at this time. So we're watching them very closely."

She said the prisoners' "health and well being is of the utmost concern to all."

In March, a group of attorneys and advocacy groups petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court to take action to protect inmates housed at state adult prisons, juvenile facilities and county jails, warning that "people who have control over their bodies" were already "self-isolating to prevent contracting or spreading this deadly disease."

The petition said, "None of the recommended measures for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are available for persons confined in jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons or for those who must interact with them. These facilities are congregate environments, in which people are confined in close proximity to one another and their keepers. Many, such as the Hamblen County, TN, jail, are overcrowded and unsanitary places where surfaces are rarely, if ever, washed."

They urged that nonviolent felons be released. The state's top court hasn't addressed the release of inmates.

Locally, judges have been addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis. They've modified bail amounts or suspended the balances of some sentences if close to expiration. In some cases, arrestees are being released on cashless bonds, and law enforcement agencies have reminded officers to issue citations to people when possible, meaning they must appear in court or pay a fine, instead of arresting them.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

photo Contributed photo / Tony Parker