Sheriff says he has ‘no authority’ to release inmates due to COVID-19

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 19, 2020 4:05 AM CT | Published: March 19, 2020 4:05 AM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

In response to requests to release some jail inmates due to the coronavirus threat, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said he does not have the authority to do so.

He said, however, that his office is reviewing the files of nonviolent detainees who could then be passed on to the courts for release consideration.

Bonner addressed the matter in a March 17 letter to Shelby County Commissioners after the topic was broached by several people, including County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, Memphis City Council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas and Shelby County Public Defender Phyllis Aluko.

<strong>Floyd Bonner</strong>

Floyd Bonner

“The jail houses pretrial detainees who are presumed innocent. It does not house convicted prisoners and has no ability to address their release,” Bonner wrote. “The Sheriff has no authority to release inmates absent court orders.”

But said he has asked former General Sessions Court Judge Mischelle Best, hired in 2019 as expeditor and special assistant for the jail, to pull files of nonviolent inmates with bonds under $500 and who have serious medical concerns.

Bonner said the information will be given to “criminal justice colleagues” who can then present them to the courts for possible release.

Other cities and states across the country, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia, have released jail inmates over the past few weeks to avoid an outbreak of coronavirus in jails and prisons.

Jails and prisons are seen as high-risk areas for COVID-19 because multiple people can be housed in cells and visitors and staff are coming and going.

Shelby County has four confirmed coronavirus cases, and there were 98 in Tennessee as of March 18.

Bonner pointed out in the letter that the jail population has decreased over the past year because of the hiring of Best as the expeditor. The jail population is at 2,131, and the facility has capacity for 2,800.

He said his office — along with the health department and Wellpath, the medical provider for the jail — have been planning and implementing “COVID” protocols for weeks. 

“There is focused screening on all new admissions. There are no inmates quarantined at this time,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office has also changed visitation procedures at the county jail at 201 Poplar and Jail East by requiring visitors to fill out a questionnaire before their video visitation. Visitation was suspended at the Juvenile Court Detention Center, the only SCSO facility where in-person visitations were still allowed.

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Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. Shelby County Jail coronavirus
Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones covers criminal justice issues and general assignment news for The Daily Memphian. She previously was a reporter at The Commercial Appeal.


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