“Speak up,” read a sign, citing Proverbs 31:8. “Why,” another asked, did the state “wait 29 days to test officers and staff? Why 38 days for inmates that were exposed?”
National attention has been riveted on armed protesters challenging Democratic-imposed business and distancing restrictions at the encouragement of President Trump. Blevins and Scroggins are part of a movement that has gained much less notice — worried Americans asking for heightened precautions in parts of the country where virus hot spots at prisons and food processing plants are affecting people who traditionally have lacked political power.
The indiscriminate nature of the virus means corrections officers, who often endure low pay and difficult working conditions, are vulnerable alongside the inmates they guard. They face the added risk of bringing the virus home to their families.
Across Tennessee, more than 100 corrections employees have been infected, according to data released by the state. Some have bolted, choosing to take leave rather than remain in the petri dish of prison.
But inmates can’t exit. More than 2,600 have been infected in state prisons, including those that are privately managed.
State officials say they have been responsive to the concerns, sanitizing the facilities and conducting widespread testing. “We had a plan very early on,” said Tony Parker, the corrections commissioner.
The women on the front lines say otherwise. Shared fear has joined Blevins and Scroggins in an unlikely alliance — swept up in a small but growing effort to put pressure on Tennessee officials to address what activists say has been a disjointed and delayed response to a crisis in their prisons.
“It’s not about whether you’re an inmate’s spouse or an officer’s spouse,” said Blevins, a 27-year-old mother of five. “It’s about lives being in danger.”
The two women — more than three decades apart in age but both native to the South — met through Christopher J. Hale, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the district that includes the Bledsoe prison.
Hale, a religious activist who helped lead Catholic outreach for then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, hosted the women on a Facebook Live broadcast last month.
“These communities, ordinarily opposed, are now participating in the same struggle,” Hale said.
By then, Blevins had entered a private Facebook group for “BCCX Loved Ones,” where 83 users — mostly inmate spouses — have gathered in a “safe place to share concerns and information,” as its creator described its purpose in a post on April 21.
Blevins, as the spouse of an officer, had to justify her participation, which she couched in spiritual terms likely to resonate in the Bible Belt community: “When God says stop, I will,” she wrote. “Until then I am going to continue to fight daily until my voice is heard!”
She aimed to show that her husband was not responsible for the safety conditions but similarly vulnerable to decisions made by the state.
“Hey, it’s not the lower staff’s fault,” she recalled telling them. “Not everyone takes a power trip being a corrections officer.”
The reception has been mixed. Rebecca Phillips, whose husband is incarcerated at Bledsoe, said the presence of spouses of prison staff made her nervous, “especially considering the Department of Corrections has not been honest about what’s going on.”
“There’s a lot of us who really appreciate her, but others are just used to being skeptical,” Scroggins said. “So they think she’s a mole, or a spy.”
Scroggins sees matters differently. She said her fellow protester is taking a risk by speaking out.
The risk has already become acute for Blevins and her husband, Aaron, who was questioned this month by prison officials about his wife’s broadsides on social media about the corrections department. He earlier sparred with his supervisors when he tried to wear a mask to work in early March.
“They said it covered too much of my identity and would scare the inmates,” the corrections officer said. “They felt like it would play up the virus, and they didn’t want the inmates to be rebellious and scared because of the virus.”
His quest to cover his face was partly out of concern for the safety of the inmates, whom he did not want to risk infecting. Clusters of cells were already seeing signs of a possible outbreak, recalled the 31-year-old. “And at that point, I was like, ‘Why don’t we lock them all down for their sake?’ ”
“I’ve heard of that incident,” said Parker, the corrections commissioner, attributing the dispute to early confusion about requirements for face coverings.
Masks are only one flash point in criticism of the state’s handling of the surge of cases in prisons. One inmate at a different facility went so far as to submit a formal grievance last month.
“Over the last few weeks, several staff have told numerous inmates that they believe covid-19 is eventually going to be introduced . . . ” the grievance read, “because staff who report that they are feeling sick are being made to work, as long as they state they haven’t been around anybody who they know has covid-19.”
At the time, there were no documented cases in the facility, Northeast Correctional Complex, in Johnson County, Tenn. Now there are 10 cases among inmates, according to state data. An inmate said most who were infected were kitchen workers.
A spokeswoman for the state prisons department, Dorinda Carter, said the grievance was resolved, adding, “The Department of Correction does not allow covid-positive employees to continue working.”
While visitation was shut down across the state on March 12, critics fault corrections officials for moving too slowly to suspend other activities, such as educational programs that continued bringing teachers into the facilities weeks after the governor had urged schools to shut down.
They also argue that the state failed to set standards for use of personal protective equipment, which was the subject of an April 10 memo titled “Instructions on appropriate mask handling.” By then, there were already 4,862 cases in the state and nearly 100 deaths.
It was not until the same day, Good Friday, that the Department of Correction undertook to test its staff systematically, according to documents released through a public records request submitted by Hale, the congressional candidate, and provided to The Washington Post. The first inmate in the state system tested positive a week earlier, on April 3, according to Lisa Piercey, the state health commissioner. Carter, the corrections spokeswoman, said the first officer was found to be positive “around April 12 or 13.”
At the Bledsoe prison, corrections officials initiated a plan on April 18 to test “select members of the inmate population” at the facility, according to a department memo.
Initially, a red sticker on a cell at Bledsoe designated a positive case, according to interviews with two corrections officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. They alleged that the inmate who had been infected was not always told of the result — a claim denied by Parker, the state corrections commissioner, who said “they were told in a timely manner.”
Eventually, inmates who had tested positive were moved into a quarantine unit, and others were rotated into their vacated cells, which were sprayed with disinfectant, the officers said.
“It’s a good ol’ boys club down here,” one officer said, explaining why he could not speak out. “You don’t rock the boat with that kind of stuff. We’re not a union. They can fire us for breathing in the wrong direction.”
Blevins and Scroggins say the protests are having an effect. Another demonstration took place Thursday outside the governor’s mansion, demanding better health care and policies to end mass incarceration in the state.
Meanwhile, the entire state prison population has now been tested, officials said. Parker said initial cases spurred quarantine and contact-tracing efforts. He said that all inmates were informed of their results, followed by isolation and daily evaluation of inmates found to be positive.
Parker attributed early confusion about masks to “concern of shortage of personal protective equipment on the national level,” acknowledging, “We were not issuing PPEs for every officer to wear at the very beginning of this incident.”
Complicating the response was the rate of asymptomatic cases, which Parker said was nearly 98 percent at the hardest-hit prisons. That figure would be a global anomaly, epidemiologists said.
“I’m scratching my head,” said Marc Stern, a professor at the University of Washington and a former assistant secretary for health services for the Washington State Department of Corrections. He said inmates could be pre-symptomatic, or they could be afraid of reporting symptoms — either to avoid being spurned by fellow inmates or because they lack faith in prison health services.
Scroggins’s boyfriend, Eric Bowman, was asymptomatic when he tested positive last month. But he had flu-like symptoms in March, she said, which he now attributes to the virus.
Once inmates go 14 days without symptoms, they are classified as “recovered” by the state, even though none has been retested. “It’s a joke,” said Phillips, whose husband tested negative last month but has not been retested.
Piercey, the state health commissioner, acknowledged an “emerging need for retesting” as the facilities, like nursing homes and food processing plants, become deadly incubators for the virus.
In Tennessee, officials say only four prisoners have died of covid-19. That count is distrusted by inmates, who have traded stories of fellow prisoners being escorted out of their cells with punishing coughs, their deaths later attributed to a stroke or an unrelated ailment.
“A bunch of us were sick around him,” said one inmate in a privately run prison in the south-central part of the state, referring to a man who died in March after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. “I lost my voice for about four days. We thought we had summer cold.”
Both the governor’s office and the corrections department have held calls with advocacy groups to hear their concerns. An April 15 call focused on testing — an area where the governor has celebrated significant strides.
“We believe that we are the first state in the country to take this action,” Lee said this month of the plan to pursue mass testing. Other states have since taken similar steps, with Maryland officials saying last week they would conduct universal testing at prisons and juvenile centers.
But Tennessee leaders have not been receptive to calls to reduce the prison population, primarily by forgiving technical violations or the final year to two years of sentences.
“I’m so glad they’re ramping up testing, but that will only show us the scale of the problem,” said Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “It will not resolve it.”
Gillum Ferguson, a spokesman for the governor, said the state was “not considering early release at this time.”
Early release would not spare Scroggins’s boyfriend, who has too many years left in his sentence. But it could free up space at Bledsoe and reduce his vulnerability to the virus in the cramped confines of lockup, where social distancing typically occurs only when it’s leveled as a punishment in the form of solitary confinement.
That could benefit Blevins’s husband, too. It’s a priority Scroggins once would have been unlikely to consider. The pandemic has changed that.
“There’s a lot of good people who work at Bledsoe,” she said. “I want to make that very clear.”