NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A prominent attorney is urging the state to release inmates already granted parole but who remain in custody because they need to take a class.
In some cases the classes are delayed or canceled because of COVID-19.
Attorney David Raybin said the state is leaving itself open to lawsuits as COVID-19 infects inmates inside Tennessee prisons.
Raybin said mass testing for COVID-19 inside Tennessee is a step in the right direction, but urged the state to do more prevent potentially costly litigation.
"I'm not saying lawsuits are inevitable if the government uses due care to protect people," Raybin said.
Testing of nearly 20,000 Tennessee inmates has revealed several prison hot spots.
CoreCivic's Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville currently has had the most COVID-19 cases with more than 1,074 inmates testing positive. The Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville had 335 cases, and the Hardeman County Correctional Facility had 151 cases.
The first hot spot, the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, reported that 585 inmates have recovered after being free of symptoms for 14 days.
Statewide, three inmates have died, but the Department of Correction said autopsies are pending.
Raybin said one of the most obvious things that can be done is release inmates already granted parole.
One mother who talked to NewsChannel 5 Investigates by phone said her son was granted parole in March. He then learned he needed to take one more class before being released. She said the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, where her son is held, stopped offering the class because of COVID-19.
"He's just stuck right now," said the mother by phone. "It's ridiculous. Why give him parole and then decide to make him take a class."
Attorney David Raybin said more than 1,000 inmates across the state are in the same situation and it would help to lower the prison population to let them out.
"The parole board could simply say 'we are going to waive that requirement, or we'll make you take that program on the street instead of in the prison,'" Raybin said.
The inmate's mom worries about her son remaining in a prison where more than 580 people have tested positive for COVID-19.
"They did say if his cellmate had coronavirus, that even if he didn't have it, they was going to make him lock down with his cellmate," the mom said.
The Board of Parole released a statement saying it is "working to safely release offenders where possible."
It stated the Board has internally reviewed "candidates who have been granted release but may not be able to complete their required pre-release conditions through no fault of their own."
And some have "already been released."
The Department of Correction said the virus is causing "some disruption in programming" as inmates are "adapting to a new normal; which is consistent to what free-world citizens are adapting to as well."
"You are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people. You're talking about maybe a thousand folks who have already been granted parole," Raybin said.
Raybin also discussed releasing inmates who are close to end of their sentences. "The harder call is those folks who are coming, maybe six to eight months to a year to the end of their sentence."
Raybin said only the governor can give clemency and release inmates who are close to the end of their sentences.
Other states have a "compassionate release" law that allows judges to intervene, but Tennessee does not. He hopes the legislature will consider a law like that.
"I'm not talking about releasing extremely dangerous people. We have prisons just for that," Raybin said.
Nationwide, more than 300 inmates have died from the coronavirus, according to a UCLA study. Raybin said there has been talk about class action lawsuits and warned that ultimately taxpayers would cover the cost of damages.
The Tennessee Board of Parole and the Tennessee Department of Correction both released statements.
You can read their full statements below:
"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Parole has taken every available measure to continue to hold hearings and protect the safety, health, and welfare of the offender population and the safety of the public in the face of this crisis. We are working with the Governor’s office, the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), and county jails across the state to safely release offenders where possible.
Our primary goal remains protecting the public by safely releasing parole eligible offenders back into the community. It would be a disservice to the hard working, law abiding citizens of this state to react in a way that jeopardizes or compromises their ability to live without fear of being further victimized. However, given the current state of the COVID-19 situation, the Board did complete a review internally to identify and review potential candidates who have been granted release, but may not be able to complete their required pre-release conditions through no fault of their own. Some of those offenders have already been released through this expedited review. While the Board is not reviewing any further cases at this time, they are conducting hearings and reviewing cases every day, and working closely with TDOC to address any issues that may arise.
The Board of Parole is aware that TDOC is making programming adjustments to ensure the safety of their inmates. Some of these institutional rehabilitative programs may require a longer completion time under the current safety measures. However, these programs are intended to help offenders successfully transition back into the community and reduce recidivism in Tennessee, and they have been identified by the Board to be required for the offender to lead a law-abiding life on parole. Programming may address behavioral issues, such as addictions, stress, and anger, and other targeted interventions, including self-help and group counseling. The Board utilizes many tools in recommending programming, including a validated Risk and Needs Assessment administered by TDOC. Additionally, the safety measures in place are not permanent and will be lifted at a time to be determined by TDOC."
"The Board reviewed an additional 52 cases that fit the criteria of offenders who had been granted parole but could complete some of their pre-release conditions in the community, rather than at their correctional facility (not all programming is available post-release).
Also, according to our most recent parole data (March 2020), there were 381 offenders who were issued parole certificates in the month of March. A certificate is issued when an offender has been granted parole and has met any pre-parole conditions, signaling to the Tennessee Department of Correction that the offender may now be released on parole supervision.
While these inmates were not released directly due to COVID-19, it’s important to note that parole hearings continue to occur daily, which has not been the case in all states."
Statement from Tennessee Department of Correction:
"TDOC does not have authority to release inmates to parole nor does the department determine which programs an inmate must complete prior to release. The department offers programming that may be required by the Board of Parole as a prerequisite to being released on parole supervision.
Given the Department’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, programming inside TDOC prisons has been modified to meet the CDC and TN Department of Health guidelines of social distancing. While the inmates are attending programs, class hours per day have been reduced to accommodate multiple groups which allows for adherence to the CDC and TN Department of Health guidelines for social distancing but extends the calendar for completion. If a program participant is quarantined or needs to be isolated for a positive test result, they will not attend programming during the quarantine period, thereby further extending the calendar for completion.
The Therapeutic Community at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex is only offered on the main campus, and those currently participating are doing so via in-cell programming.
While the department is making every attempt to continue programming as much as possible, some disruption in programming will continue to occur as we work with inmates and staff in adapting the new normal; which is consistent with what free-world citizens are adapting to as well."