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Overdoses Skyrocket in Tennessee Prisons During Pandemic Despite Visitation Restrictions

by Ed Lyon

In the three years before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, fourteen Tennessee state prisoners died from overdoses, according to the state Department of Correction (DOC). Over the two years since then that number skyrocketed to at least 68, not including several pending autopsies.

The rise from six overdose deaths in 2019 to 49 in 2021 is especially remarkable given that most visitation was suspended during that same period, in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease.

So where did all those drugs come from if visitors didn’t bring them in?

After all, mailroom restrictions—draconian in the best of times but now insanely ridiculous—were also implemented to fight the spread of COVID-19, and most still remain in place. Since drugs do not fall from the sky nor materialize out of thin air, someone must bring them in.

But with few visitors or volunteers allowed to enter the prisons—religious ministry outreach and other volunteers were also barred during the pandemic—the suspects left are prison employees. Former DOC Commissioner Tony Parker told a state Senate Panel in the fall of 2021 that DOC works closely with federal and state law enforcement agencies to fight this “ongoing battle” with smuggling, which is also a problem at the state’s for-profit prisons owned and operated by CoreCivic.

An analysis of DOC contraband arrest data from the first three months of 2020, before the pandemic was declared, counted three staff members and 10 visitors. During the remaining nine months of the year, another 14 visitors were arrested, but the number of staffers arrested soared to 20.

In a system with around 26,000 prisoners, DOC’s 49 overdose deaths in one year is bad news. Even more alarming: Prison healthcare staff administered the overdose-reversal drug Nalaxone almost 900 times in 2020 and 2021. Without that, many more families would have received a cardboard box with the ashes of their loved one.

Of course, Tennessee prisons are not alone in facing this surge of overdose deaths, which didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from 2001 to 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons around the country increased by more than 600%. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by over 200%.

The National Institute on Drug abuse estimates at least 65 percent of U.S. prisoners struggle with drug addiction. Another 20 percent were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime but did not meet the official criteria for a substance use disorder.

High walls and fences topped with barbed and concertina wire, restrictive mailroom procedures, visitor searches and drug-sniffing canines seem to do little to keep drugs from getting into U.S. prisons. The arrests of numerous guards and other employees have also failed to staunch the steady flow.

Or maybe just not enough smuggling guards have yet been caught and arrested. 

Sources: The Marshall Project, Murfreesboro Post, WLPN

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