"They didn't have enough medical staff before COVID and people were being denied essential medical care because there's not enough money in the budget," says Theeda Murphy, Organization and Grassroots Development Coordinator for the Tennessee No Exceptions Prison Collective.
She paints a dire image of living conditions on Tennessee state prisons, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"One of the main things is the chronic understaffing, which leads to the proliferation of violence … There's not enough staff to control them any other way, so they try to break them," says Murphy. She adds that while all of these conditions tend to be worse in private prisons like those run by CoreCivic, even state prisons suffer from the same issues.
"This was all before COVID. They were having to use violent means of controlling the population because they don't have enough staff. They were overcrowding people and putting too many people in too small of a space. When COVID hit, the conditions got worse because they were already bad."
This mirrors the claims from Civil Rights activists across the nation as a key theme to COVID-19 discussions seems to be that the pandemic did not create many new problems, but instead worsened old fractures within our society.
That being said, Murphy also believes that the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by Tennessee prisons could've been better.
"They never paid for enough PPE. So you start getting staff who start testing positive, and they can't report to work. So now you're even more understaffed than you were before the pandemic."
Beyond this, inmates themselves face unique struggles.
"None of the insiders, the people who are incarcerated, have ever been able to socially distance and now even more, so they can't because now they're trying to concentrate them more into one area because they don't have enough staff to watch them," Murphy says. "Nobody has PPE, and they can't really clean up after themselves the way you should to keep COVID from spreading. So the prisons have become real hot spots because of this."
Perhaps most importantly, Murphy reminds us that this a problem for the whole of society, not just those within prisons.
"When the prisons are hotspots, it doesn't stay behind the walls. It affects the community around it."