Both sides await decision in lawsuit seeking release of vulnerable inmates

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 14, 2020 6:11 PM CT | Published: July 14, 2020 5:03 PM CT

The question of whether medically vulnerable inmates at the Shelby County Jail should be released because of COVID-19 is now in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman following the conclusion of a federal court hearing on the matter.

<strong>Amy Weirich</strong>

Amy Weirich

A number of witnesses, including Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, testified during the multi-day hearing in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The advocacy group Just City and some local attorneys joined the effort.

In closing arguments Monday, July 13, plaintiffs attorney Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb said the questions the court must answer are whether the plaintiffs are safe and whether the jail situation can be made safe. As of July 10, 176 detainees and 107 jail staff had tested positive.

“As one district court recently analogized,” Silberstein-Loeb said, “the jail establishing COVID-19 precautions while ensuring adequate social distancing is the equivalent of a NASCAR driver who spurns his seat belt and helmet because he plans not to crash.

Judge in jail lawsuit urges both sides to talk

“The jail has not only forgone those necessary safety measures – the seat belt and helmet – but it has recklessly set itself on a course of destruction by adopting a so-called non-testing strategy which the independent inspector found ‘ineffective and useless.’”

Nathan Tilly, one of the attorneys representing the county, said Shelby County Jail officials have done what is necessary to make the jail safe for detainees and staff.

“We have had two inmates that have required hospitalization. They recovered without being placed on a ventilator, so, within the Shelby County Jail, our numbers are better than outside in the world,” Tilly said. 

“Our fatality numbers are better, our hospitalization numbers are better because, as Dr. Donna Randolph said in her testimony, we’re doing a great job in preventing COVID-19 from even coming into the facility. And the numerous steps that have been undertaken, we think, demonstrates clearly that the Shelby County Jail has taken COVID-19 seriously.”

Attorneys in the case will next submit briefs to Lipman before she rules on a temporary restraining order releasing vulnerable inmates.

Lawsuit seeks release of medically vulnerable from Shelby County Jail

The ACLU filed the class-action lawsuit May 20 on behalf of detainees Favian Busby and Michael Edgington. The suit seeks the release of medically vulnerable and disabled detainees from the men’s facility at 201 Poplar because of the coronavirus.

During earlier questioning by Jeff Robinson, another attorney for the plaintiffs, Shelby County Chief Jailer Kirk Fields questioned whether symptomatic detainees, prior to a policy update last month, were being returned to the general population without retesting. 

Fields told Robinson he wasn’t aware of that – “if it happened.”

Under the June policy update, detainees must have two negative tests before they can leave medical isolation.

Fields agreed with Robinson that if people had been released back into the population without retesting, there was an increased risk of spreading the virus.

Fields also testified that asymptomatic detainees are medically isolated for 21 days based on CDC guidelines and the county Health Department. He said if they show no signs of the virus for 72 days, they are “deemed clear” and moved back to general population.

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When asked about an April incident in which detainees who tested positive were pepper-sprayed when they resisted going back to general population without being re-tested, Fields said he was told by his staff they were upset about moving from quarantine and not about COVID-19.

“So when you had a discussion with people on the sixth floor, they were discussing Covid-19?,” Robinson asked.

“No, sir,” Fields said. “Not with me.”

Robert Harold Pigram, 51, who was on the sixth floor, testified July 10 that he and other detainees staged a sit-in because they protested going back to the general population without being retested. He said they were pepper-sprayed and added that he has been afraid for his life in the jail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am extremely terrified for my life,” he said. “I call my kids. I have teenagers and I called them to touch base because I’m afraid I may not get out of here. I am very afraid for my life.”

Attorney James Pentecost, who represents county government and the Sheriff’s Office, Monday discussed with Fields the fact that the jail has implemented many of the recommendations made by Michael Brady, the independent inspector the court appointed to inspect the jail. Those recommendations include not having inmates clustered in holding cells when they go to court.

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Shelby County Criminal Court Judge John Campbell testified that criminal court is working to get video equipment installed in five locations in criminal court so that detainees do not have to come to the courtroom. He said the video equipment should be installed this week.

Weirich testified that her office and law enforcement partners, including the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and personnel from the Shelby County Corrections Center and the jail, meet every Tuesday afternoon in a “criminal justice partner” meeting to discuss reducing the jail population. She said possible means of reduction include looking at older detainees, detainees with low-level felony charges and other vulnerable groups.

Weirich said since March 13, when the order was received from state Supreme Court to reduce local jail populations, her office has worked to do so.

“Our focus has been on safely -- reasonably and responsibly doing anything and everything we can to reduce the jail population. And also, reduce the population at the penal farm for those that are serving sentences that we could do something about ... to get them out of custody,” she said.

Since then, she said her office and judges have had more than 5,200 bench warrants cases dismissed to keep defendants from being arrested. Her office also sent more than 3,000 letters to defendants out of custody dismissing their cases.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


ACLU Shelby County Jail lawsuit COVID-19 inmate release
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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