Judge rules Shelby County jail must make more improvements after inspection finds flaws with vaccinations

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Shelby County Sheriff’s office needs to keep making improvements to protect inmates from COVID-19.

This decision upholds concerns expressed in a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of vulnerable and disabled inmates housed at the Shelby County jail. The sheriff’s office wanted to end that consent decree, saying it met the requirements.

But a judge said that has not happened, after hearing testimony from several inmates firsthand about conditions at the jail.

“If that jail was full of white men, if that jail was full of people that looked like me or my kids, we would not have to be fighting as hard as we are for their safety and protection,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City.

The organization had a victory in their fight as a judge denied the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office motion to end a consent decree.

The agreement was negotiated after a lawsuit on behalf of several inmates over COVID-19 concerns. It required independent jail inspections, improved ventilation systems, and COVID19 education including a vaccination program.

The Sheriff’s Office said it was providing vaccinations.

“Even then I was a little surprised that the sheriff’s office moved to terminate this agreement after only offering vaccinations for just a few days when they filed this motion,” Spickler said.

But an inspector’s report said the vaccination program was ineffective, a sentiment echoed by a current inmate.

“The judge even heard testimony earlier this month from someone who didn’t even know what brand of vaccine he got. So, he didn’t know if he needed a second dose or not,” Spickler said.

That wasn’t the only issue presented. A 70-page report from and independent inspector outlines a concerning jail population resulting in a lack of social distancing.

The inspector also warned about staff shortages leading to inmates being confined in their cell for long periods of time.

The inspector stated: “During my August 5, 2021  follow-up inspection,  the staffing  shortages and lockdowns were more prevalent than in my previous inspections. Whole sides of floors if not more had not been out of their cells for days if not weeks at a time.”

The judge noted in the conclusion of her ruling that with the current vaccination rate and delta variant, the inmates were in “deep peril” and the sheriff’s office “failed to satisfy their burden.”

The sheriff’s office said it could not comment on pending litigation.

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