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Tennessee’s Prison Population Affected by COVID-19 far More than the General Population

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Report by TN Justice Center

One in 300 staff members and 1 in 515 prisoners who contracted COVID-19 have died, according to a report by the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law and advocacy firm. It said Tennessee spends $2 billion a year on inmate health care and the cost is expected to increase since the prison population is expected to increase and get older. Overall, 15% of the costs for corrections are health care payments.

During the Department of Correction's budget request hearing with Gov. Bill Lee in early November, the department requested $60 million in increased annual costs, including $9.4 million for a medical contract inflator, $1.9 million for a behavioral health contract inflator and $3.7 million for a pharmacy contract inflator. The inflator clauses adjust how much the state owes annually on a contract based on inflation.

“Tens of thousands of Tennesseans depend on jail and prison administrators for their health care, 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,” said Josh Spickler, the executive director of Just City Memphis. “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 health care 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.”

Tennessee inmates are charged a $3 medical copay for visits to physicians, medication or health care needs, which is a significant cost considering prisoners make 17 cents an hour, according to the Tennessee Justice Center. That means it would take almost 18 hours to afford a visit.

Tennessee contracts with private health care companies to provide for prison health care, moving from Corizon to Centurion Health Care in 2017 and awarding a $270 million contract.

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