Inmate allowed home confinement after complaining of health conditions at Silverdale jail

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / An inmate pushes a cart with a guard on a path through the main exercise yard Tuesday, June 30, 2015, at Silverdale Correctional Facility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Two weeks after a Silverdale Detention Center inmate told a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge that he wasn't always receiving his prescribed daily medication and had to "cause a scene" at least twice in order to get it, the judge issued an order allowing the man to finish his sentence on house arrest.

Chattanooga attorney Chad Wilson has been fighting to have his client Tommie Lyons' one-year jail sentence amended, saying Lyons contracted COVID-19 in Hamilton County custody and had not been receiving his prescribed daily medication and weekly blood work for a potentially deadly pre-existing condition that has left Lyons immunocompromised.

After multiple hearings, Criminal Court Judge Don Poole found that it did appear that Lyons had "missed his medication on many occasions and his blood test was only taken the day before he came to court on the second occasion" while under the care of CoreCivic, the private company that operated Silverdale.

The company has since ended its contract with the county, meaning operational control of the facility has returned to the sheriff's office as of this year. That is why Poole has held multiple hearings - to ensure Lyons didn't see a lapse in care during the transition.

CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said the company couldn't comment on specific cases, citing federal health care privacy laws. But he did say, "We take very seriously our responsibility to care for the individuals in our facilities, and we work hard to ensure those entrusted to our care are treated respectfully and humanely. We had robust policies and practices in place at Silverdale Detention Center designed to ensure that all patients received medication as ordered by their physician."

During a Dec. 18 hearing, CoreCivic's health services administrator, Freida Thompson, acknowledged that Lyons had not been receiving his prescribed daily medication and weekly blood work, though Thompson blamed Lyons and an oversight in paperwork.

But even after the county regained management of the jail, Lyons said, he continued to miss his medications. In his order, Poole noted that Lyons testified on Friday to missing his medication on five occasions within the previous two weeks.

In an email, sheriff's office general counsel Coty Wamp said "a board certified medical doctor" and other medical personnel have been at the jail for a minimum of 40 hours per week "to provide 24/7 care to all inmates."

"However, [neither] the HCSO nor medical providers at Silverdale can force an inmate to take the medications that he is offered," Wamp said. "If an inmate refuses, as Mr. Lyons did on several occasions, that is his or her choice. We strive to provide the same access and quality of health care to inmates that is afforded to all members of our community."

The claim that Lyons refused his medication was discussed in court last month. A Silverdale health official acknowledged that the facility had none of the forms for Lyons that would be signed by inmates to confirm they are refusing medication.

It's not clear whether Lyons has signed any refusal forms since the county took over control of the jail.

Poole ordered on Friday that Lyons complete his sentence on house arrest.

"There is no excuse, legally or morally or fiscally, for the state to deny prisoners their constitutional right to medically necessary care, nor any excuse for jails failing to follow the basic medical protocols for reducing the spread of COVID-19 - which protect the jail staff, their families and every citizen, not just those incarcerated," Wilson told the Times Free Press in an emailed statement.

In his motion and in earlier hearings, Wilson has argued that an alleged lack of COVID-19 precautions has caused the virus to "rapidly and extensively" spread among jail staff and inmates, as evidenced by the number of defendants whose court cases are being reset due to them being quarantined in jail. And two other attorneys testified to seeing a majority of jail staff either not wearing a mask at all or only below the chin, and most inmates did not have masks despite being housed in close quarters.

Poole stopped short of issuing any orders relating to the alleged lack of COVID-19 precautions, noting that the evidence he heard was from a time when CoreCivic was in charge.

At the Jan. 8 hearing, Poole asked the new health services administrator, Robin Ponthier, to make sure every effort was made to ensure that people appropriately wear masks.

"I think that's probably all we can do," he said at the time.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.