LEBANON, Tenn. (WTVF) — Lindsey Neal spent most of her Tuesday with the task of setting up funeral arrangements for her 67-year-old brother who died as an inmate.
The Tennessee Department of Correction reported its first inmate to die early Monday morning after testing positive for COVID-19 at the hospital nearly two weeks ago. While TDOC didn't release the name, Neal said that person was her brother Ronnie Johnson, who was housed at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville.
"I'm heartbroken. I'm sad and I'm frustrated," Neal told NewsChannel 5. "These people need help. They're inmates and they're human beings like everybody else."
Johnson was one of 1,959 positive COVID-19 cases out of the 5,962 tests across all facilities, according to recent state data. The Trousdale facility has become the epicenter with the majority of positive inmate cases. As a result, Governor Bill Lee has ordered mass testing for all inmates and staff in the state.
Neal said she tried to get a hold of her brother even before he was transferred to Sumner Regional Medical Center as the number of cases continued to go up. She claimed she never heard from anyone until she received a call from the hospital on Sunday when Johnson's condition was deteriorating.
Neal recalled FaceTiming him and seeing him on a ventilator. She was told how he was in a better state the day before. He died the following morning.
"I'm thinking how they wouldn't let me talk to him when he could talk. I had left messages way before then, even to the warden, and no one contacted me ever until he was dying," Neal said.
There are six other COVID-19 positive inmates who are currently hospitalized. One is in serious condition.
Johnson, as Neal noted during the interview, had been the subject of news coverage in the past as the "Southside Rapist" in Lebanon. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison but was granted parole a few years ago. He returned after violating his parole for having alcohol in his home during a routine search.
TDOC said the exact cause of death is pending per the medical examiner's office.
Concerns over facility
The jump in cases in Trousdale, which is privately owned by CoreCivic, was alarming for many families and advocates who demanded for more testing before the governor's decision.
Knoxville mother Fay Swanson told NewsChannel 5 she's worried sick for her 26-year-old son who is housed at the facility. Last time she spoke to him was on Saturday, and Swanson claimed her son never received his test results which only amplified concerns.
"The only way they're assuming someone has tested positive is because they're being remoed from their pods. They're not given any notification up until that point if they're positive or negative for COVID-19," Swanson said. "He's terrified and I'm terrified too."
Swanson also expressed concerns about possible lack of soap and cleanliness at the facility.
CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist said there is a "robust communication process in place at TTCC." She said all inmates are notified of their test results and are now housed together based on if they're positive for the virus or not.
In a statement, TDOC spokesperson Dorinda Carter said, "Inmates are informed of their results as quickly as possible by our medical teams as the results return. If they have to be quarantined or isolated, they are allowed to disinfect their personal property and take it with them. They also have access to free telephone calls with their loved ones."
Lawmaker calls for more action
Although the governor has called for mass testing, Senator Brenda Gimore, D-Nashville, suggested it's not enough and worries more cases will only go up.
Gilmore said there are several options the state could do to reduce the number of cases in places where social distancing is difficulty.
She wants to speed up the process for inmates who have been granted parole but are waiting on release because the program has educational requirements that can't be fulfilled because instructors aren't able to enter the facility right now.
Gilmore also suggested streamlining the release process for inmates who are currently parole eligible, and currently screen and furlough prisoners who are medically vulnerable such as the elderly.
"We make a lot of money off of prisoners but I think this is the time to treat all prisoners with human dignity. Some of these prisoners are there who have committed just very, very minor offenses or non-violent offenses. Those are candidates that we should look at and try to release," Gilmore told NewsChannel 5.