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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

Defense attorney tests positive for COVID-19 after multiple visits to shelby county jail

A Memphis defense attorney with COVID-19 believes he caught it in the jail

An assistant public defender is among the people who have tested positive for COVID-19. (Daily Memphian file)
An assistant public defender is among the people who have tested positive for COVID-19. (Daily Memphian file)

Nick Cloud went home one day last week feeling a bit ill. He took a nap and woke up feeling worse – a fever and a sore throat.

“Things just kind of snowballed real quick. By Wednesday morning I had chills, sweats, sore throat, painful breathing, muscle aches. Fever was over a hundred,’’ he said.

Cloud is one of nearly 400 people in Memphis and Shelby County who’ve contracted the coronavirus COVID-19 infection, but his may be a special case.

An assistant Shelby County Public Defender, he’d been in and out of the Shelby County Jail repeatedly meeting with clients in the days before he began exhibiting symptoms.

“I still don’t know exactly where I got it from. If you told me to bet something, I would bet it came from the jail,’’ Cloud said in a Sunday, March 29, interview. He’s meticulously checked all his social and professional contacts.

“So far, everybody’s come up negative. That’s why I can’t figure out where the hell I got it from. I’m just assuming it’s got to be the jail,” said Cloud, 40, who began exhibiting symptoms on March 24, a day after the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office announced that a jail employee “who works with detainees” had tested positive for COVID.

The jail has been under scrutiny since early this month when the coronavirus pandemic first began its spread into Shelby County.

Concerned that officials weren’t doing enough to protect vulnerable populations in the jail, Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization, has bailed out more than two dozen inmates held on lower level charges.

But officials say they’ve been working hard, too, to reduce the jail population.

Sheriff’s spokesman Anthony Buckner said in a March 23 video statement the population of the men’s jail at 201 Poplar stood at 2,006 while the women’s facility, Jail East, was 212 – a total male and female population of 2,218. That total was down by more than a hundred since March 18 and is several hundred fewer than totals at the start of the year.

“SCSO has been utilizing heightened screening procedures for detainees over the past several weeks,’’ Buckner said then. Employees and vendors entering the jail must have their temperature taken and complete a health and travel questionnaire, Buckner said.

In a separate video statement on March 27, District Attorney Amy Weirich said the jail population had fallen under 2,000.

“We already had many processes in place that were working to reduce the jail population every day … We are looking every day to identify people that we can safely, reasonably and responsibly release from jail and back into the community,’’ she said. The effort includes “fast-tracking’’ cases of inmates who’ve “expressed an interest in pleading guilty,’’ she said.

Still, some question whether officials have moved with enough urgency.

As authorities from Nashville to Los Angeles moved earlier this month to purge jail populations, some jurisdictions dragged their heels, according to an editorial piece authored by University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy and Memphis civil rights lawyer Brice Timmons.

“This pandemic has people keeping their distance from each other, but what if you had no choice but to be in a crowded room, sharing a sink and a toilet, unable to so much as sanitize your hands or step away from a person when they sneezed?’’ say Mulroy and Timmons, arguing that keeping inmates in such unhealthy conditions may violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. “America’s culture of mass incarceration is unnecessarily forcing hundreds of thousands of people to crowd together, often with substandard sanitation and medical care.’’

Cloud said he’d been to the jail repeatedly before the emergence of his symptoms on March 24, in part because of Tennessee Supreme Court COVID-prevention orders that limited in-court proceedings.

“I’ve gone to jail more than anybody else in our office. I was taking over someone else’s caseload. And, so, with them not bringing clients up to court, I had to go see them in the jail to figure out what was going on with all these cases that I was taking over. So, I was down there for the last two weeks, at least 10 times,’’ Cloud said.

After he began showing symptoms, Cloud got tested at Germantown Methodist. A day later, March 26, test results came back positive.

That same day he got a call from Mischelle Alexander-Best, the sheriff’s jail expeditor responsible for the jail’s population.

“She called me and she wanted to know who all I had seen. So, I gave her as many names as I could possibly remember, which wasn’t all of them. But I don’t know what they’re doing with that, if they’re going to test those people or try to isolate those people.’’

Cloud said if he did in fact catch COVID in the jail he holds no animosity for it.

“I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it when you’re dealing with people in custody, because you have to be able to talk to them,’’ he said. Calling a client over a jail phone often isn’t possible because many don’t trust the security of those lines, he said.

As for his infection, Cloud says he’s past the worst of it.

“It wasn’t as bad as the flu. But it was like a mild case of the flu,’’ said Cloud who is self-quarantined and spends his days watching Netflix or playing video games. “And then since then it’s just kind of been like the back end of a cold.’’

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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