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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

ACLU fears ‘public health catastrophe’ at 201 poplar if aggressive measures aren’t taken

Inmate’s positive COVID test prompts questions

The Tennessee head of the American Civil Liberties Union says the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office needs more transparency to document efforts to protect adult and juvenile detainees from COVID-19 infection.

“Folks’ lives are in danger,’’ Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said Monday, April 6.

An assistant public defender is among the people who have tested positive for COVID-19. (Daily Memphian file)
More information is needed from the jail in Shelby County as well as other detention facilities and prisons across Tennessee to not only protect inmates’ health but that of the larger public too, said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. (Daily Memphian file)

Weinberg said more information is needed from the jail here as well as other detention facilities and prisons across Tennessee to not only protect inmates’ health but that of the larger public too.

“If the virus is inside a facility – and we know how contagious it is – and correctional guards, as they have been reported in Shelby County, have the virus and then they go out into the community and make more people contagious, then we’re just creating more of a public health catastrophe,’’ she said.

Weinberg’s comments came hours after Sheriff Floyd Bonner’s Office announced that a detainee who’s been held since January on a $599,000 bond has tested positive for COVID. The detainee showed symptoms late last week and was transferred to Regional One Health for evaluation.

<strong>Hedy Weinberg</strong>
Hedy Weinberg

He is now back in the jail in quarantine.

In a separate release Monday, the Sheriff’s Office said 14 unnamed employees have tested positive for COVID. That includes at least two previously announced employees who work with detainees.

The Sheriff’s Office said on March 23 that an employee working at the men’s jail at 201 Poplar had tested positive; it announced on April 1 that an employee working at the Juvenile Court Detention Center had tested positive. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Anthony Buckner said then that 16 juveniles “are under quarantine orders.’’

Additionally, Assistant Public Defender Nick Cloud said last week he’s contracted COVID and believes he caught it in the men’s jail. Cloud said he’d consulted with clients at the jail about 10 times in the days before he tested positive on March 26.

Weinberg said jail officials should disclose the number of inmates and employees they’ve tested for COVID-19 along with specific information about quarantines and other details.

The ACLU made a similar request regarding Tennessee’s prisons in an April 3 letter to Gov. Bill Lee.

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Reached late Monday, Sheriff’s spokesman Buckner said he didn’t have the details Weinberg seeks but would look into it.

“I don’t know the exact number jail detainees that have been tested at this point,’’ Buckner said. He said he would check with the jail’s medical provider to see if that information is available.

The Sheriff’s Office has taken a variety of precautions at the jail, including the suspending of visitation last month and screening protocols for employees and vendors entering detention facilities. Authorities have reduced the jail population by several hundred in recent weeks.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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