A movement born in the parking lot of the Bradley County Jail is gaining support and getting international attention in its push to improve conditions inside the Cleveland, Tennessee, detention center.
Last month, a group of several area residents gathered in the parking lot to protest. They had heard from friends and family inside the jail who described poor conditions. As protests grew, inmates began writing messages on pieces of paper and holding them against the cell windows.
"Help," the notes said. "Locked down for saying something." "No mask."
The protesters responded by writing their phone numbers on the signs. Soon the leaders of Bradley County Incarcerated Resolutions were flooded with calls, sometimes 30 a day, said Paris Kirby, one of the founders of the group. It seemed like every day, they were being told something new that was allegedly going on inside the jail, such as inmates being put in cells with people who tested positive for COVID-19 or a lack of cleaning supplies, she said.
The messages emboldened those calling for change.
"We weren't asking for them to let our family members out," Kirby said. "We just want to know that they're going to be safe. That we're not going to get a phone call like, 'Oh, your family member passed away today,' whether it's from [the coronavirus] or whatever."
On Friday, more than 206,000 people were signed onto an online petition requesting an investigation of conditions inside the jail, including the use of masks and the availability of cleaning supplies. The group's goals mirror those of similar justice movements across the country, such as increased investment in mental health services.
Bradley County Incarcerated Resolutions has raised more than $40,000 on GoFundMe to establish a bail fund in the county, similar to the one operated by Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence in Hamilton County.
They have also launched a podcast — "Horror Stories From The Injustice Center" — that describes firsthand experiences inside the jail.
Last week, their work was highlighted by The Observers, part of the France 24 news organization.
"It was obvious that the news was bad, it just took somebody saying, 'Hey, let's do something about it,'" said Jae Carico, one of the organizers.
Their push comes on the heels of a moment of uncertainty in the local jail.
In the past six weeks, 34 inmates and 15 jail staff tested positive for COVID-19. All those who were positive have recovered from the virus, said Taylor Woodruff, spokesperson for the sheriff's office.
However, on Wednesday, Joseph Dewhurst was found unresponsive in his cell and later died. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating the death. On Friday, it was reported that Dewhurst previously tested positive for the coronavirus.
According to a statement from the sheriff's office, all incoming inmates are screened for COVID-19 and provided a voluntary test. Inmates are then isolated for 14 days before being assigned to a space in the jail. A cart of cleaning supplies is available to clean the cells, according to the statement from June 29. All staff are required to wear masks and all inmates have been offered masks, Woodruff said.
It remains unclear how the first case of the virus got into the jail, Woodruff said. However, the first reported case in the building was a corrections officer, he said.
"Such claims of unsanitary conditions and threats of COVID-19 from inmates are false," Woodruff said in a statement. "Cleaning guidelines and resources that are available to our inmates have remained the same since the beginning of this pandemic. The well being and safety of our inmates are of the utmost importance and are why our many 'extra mile' provisions have been made."
The Tennessee Corrections Institute sets standards for local jails and workhouses. However, according to the TCI website, the organization "does not have the authority to handle nor investigate complaints related to local adult detention facilities" apart from an annual audit. Complaints should be directed to administration of the local detention center, the website states.
Around July 13, workers at the jail installed grates over the windows that allowed in some light but otherwise blocked inmates from holding up written messages as they had done previously. The sheriff's office said this installation was approved by TCI previously to stop the transfer of contraband.
According to a statement from the sheriff's office, recent communication between protesters and inmates creates "tension in the jail" and puts inmates and staff at risk.
"Having non-incarcerated individuals gather around the jail to communicate with inmates through the windows is not only potentially dangerous, but violates the restrictions on inmate communication with the outside world — communication between inmates and their friends/family is strictly limited to phone calls, video visitation and letters," Woodruff said in a statement.
The protesters said this amounts to intimidation by police and they will continue demonstrating to improve conditions.
A vigil for Dewhurst is planned for Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Bradley County Jail.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.