Pandemics, Prisons, and Policy: An Overview of Criminal Justice and Public Health in Tennessee

Jennifer Johnson | December 29, 2021

Nashville, TN– The Tennessee Justice Center has authored a public policy brief that reveals how Tennessee inmates were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and exposes gaping deficiencies in the level of healthcare being provided within the state’s criminal justice system.

Tennessee ranks 20th in the nation for the number of state inmates infected with coronavirus, per capita. As of July, one in every 515 state prisoners who contracted COVID-19 had died, and the numbers are even more bleak when it comes to correctional staff. One in every 300 staff members who tested positive have died. Unfortunately, this situation is symptomatic of the public health crisis that currently exists within our jail and prison system.

While the state spends more than $2 billion a year on inmate healthcare, inmates consistently experience higher rates of chronic and mental health conditions than the general population, and time spent incarcerated is associated with a significant decline in overall health. It’s time for Tennessee lawmakers to consider meaningful healthcare reform that adequately meets the needs of those behind bars so they can return to their families and communities in better health.

Josh Spickler, the Executive Director of Just City Memphis, said, “Tens of thousands of Tennesseans depend on jail and prison administrators for their healthcare, and that care, when it happens at all, is often unconstitutionally deficient and contributes to the suffering of people of all ages across our state. When we hear about poor care and the medical tragedies inside jails and prisons, it is usually because of litigation that becomes public, but this timely and exhaustively researched report gives us a clear picture of the problems with healthcare in our jails and prisons. As with so many systems, COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities and challenges that have long existed for some of the most vulnerable Tennesseans. Thanks to the Tennessee Justice Center for publishing this heartbreaking yet critical report AND for recommending sensible solutions that will keep more people safe and save money.”



We have lots of opportunities to get involved here at TJC! Learn more about Health Equity in Tennessee and around the nation. Visit our Action Center to see what you can do to encourage our state to solve our health needs and improve our safety net. Looking for other ways to contribute to our mission? You can also donate to TJC so that we can continue to do this work to improve our community for each and every person who’s a part of it.

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