Inmates at 201 Poplar pepper-sprayed over move after COVID quarantine

By , Daily Memphian Published: May 19, 2020 5:51 PM CT

Detainees at 201 Poplar who had tested positive for COVID-19, upset they were being returned to their original housing, were pepper-sprayed Tuesday, May 19, after staging a sit-in, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office confirmed.

SCSO spokesman Anthony Buckner said the incident occurred about 3:30 p.m. and involved 51 inmates.

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“We had a group of about 51 detainees on the sixth floor that refused to return to their housing units,” Buckner said. “The Detention Response Team was sent to the floor to help support ongoing efforts to gain voluntary compliance. A chemical agent was released near the detainees after they refused all staff orders to comply and sat on the floor.”

No injuries were reported as the detainees then complied and moved to their pods.

“We believe that this incident was largely due to the detainees wanting to remain in the dormitory-style housing as opposed to the pod-style of housing,” Buckner said.

Earlier Tuesday, some of the detainees and their families said they were concerned because they were being moved back without being retested.

Officials said, however, that Shelby County Health Department guidelines on quarantine measures were met and it was safe to return the inmates to their original pods.

Erick Faulkner, 44, has been in jail since November on charges of burglary and theft. He said he and about 54 other detainees staged a “peaceful” sit-in to protest the end of their quarantine without first being tested to make sure they are free of the virus.

“All we are looking for is to be re-tested before we are re-classified and rehoused,” he said, noting he feels “a moral obligation” not to pass the virus to anyone else. 

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He said he and other detainees were tested voluntarily April 24. 

“We were tested on April 24. On April 28, the test results came back positive and we were all corralled up from our fourth floor housing unit, with isolated pods, (and sent) to an open dormitory where you don’t sleep 6 feet apart from another inmate,” Faulkner said in a telephone interview from the sixth floor of the jail.

“As I am speaking to you now,” Faulkner said before the pepper-spray incident, “the officers are coming in, displaying force (and) they have their pepper-spray canisters and are telling us to pack up and go back to our original housing units. The tests were not mandatory, and they want us to go back down there. So right now, about 55 of us are demonstrating but peacefully.”

Diane Jones, whose son Terrence Harris has been in jail for three years, told his mother about the move from the sixth floor Tuesday and she called Shelby County Sheriff’s Office officials to get answers.

“I want them to be tested and separated accordingly and to be treated with respect,” Jones said. “And I want them to receive documentation on when they tested positive.”

She said her son, who is 38, has been in jail since 2016 after he was charged with first-degree murder and several other charges. He was set to go to court when COVID-19 struck.

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“Everything with court has been put on hold, which I understand,” his mother said. “But now, with them planning to move them back to their original pods, it is just not the right thing to do. He has high blood pressure and he is trying to get home to his two children.”

Buckner confirmed 136 detainees tested positive and have been housed on the sixth floor for the past 21 days.

“The detainees who were moved to the sixth floor are being reintegrated to the housing units,” Buckner said. “They have undergone more than 14 days of quarantine with symptom checks twice daily and have been cleared by our medical vendor to be released from medical quarantine without an additional test. A deep cleaning of the housing units has occurred for the safety of the detainees and staff.”

Buckner said all the detainees were asymptomatic, and it was not the Sheriff’s Office decision on whether to retest the detainees before they were moved back to their original housing units. He said that decision is up to the Health Department.

“They are not being retested,” Buckner said. “That is not our call. From the beginning, we’ve said we follow the recommendations of the Health Department. The recommendation from the Health Department when this happened was to undergo a 14-day quarantine, and we’ve done that and an additional seven days.”

Faulkner disputes the claim that the inmates who tested positive were asymptomatic. He said he has been “ridiculously weak” since contracting the virus.

“I have been here with COVID for the last 21 days, and my experience has been I have had diarrhea, difficulty breathing, vomiting and I have been ridiculously weak every day. And no physicians have seen us since we got here, and now they are about to move us and we still have not seen a physician and been re-tested,” Faulkner said.

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In the weekly COVID-19 update from SCSO May 15, the Sheriff’s Office reported that 151 detainees tested positive for the virus and 66 staff members.

Activists have pushed for the release of detainees and inmates, especially those with health problems, from Shelby County correctional facilities. 

In an email May 19, members of Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, or MICAH, said they are holding a virtual press conference at 10:30 a.m. May 21 about a “call to action” over the lack of testing for inmates in the Shelby County Division of Corrections.

“While the Health Department has prioritized testing at 201 Poplar, the population of over 1,500 men and women at Shelby County Division of Corrections (SCDC) has not been included in the SCHD’s plans for mass testing all residents of Shelby County,” according to the emailed statement.

“MICAH calls on the Shelby County Health Department to prioritize testing at SCDC and to immediately begin mass testing at the SCDC facilities for both the men and women being housed there.

“The incarcerated individuals at SCDC have been put at the very back of the line for COVID-19 testing in Shelby County, and MICAH is raising our voices to bring attention to this deprioritization. No one at SCDC was sentenced to COVID.”


Shelby County Jail coronavirus Shelby County Sheriff's Office
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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