Shelby County sheriff sued, accused of violating inmates’ rights amid coronavirus pandemic

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner is under fire for how he’s handled the jail system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates are asking for “emergency action” to protect inmates.

In a 26-page complaint, representatives from prison reform groups allege Sheriff Bonner is violating inmates’ 14th Amendment right, which states correctional officers are required to provide reasonable health and safety to those in pretrial custody.

Teresa Ellis says her brother-in-law Eric Faulkner is an inmate at 201 Poplar. She says he’s one of the more than 150 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19.

“They do not deserve what they’re going through, with no kind of medical attention of anything,” Ellis said.

She says he’s currently isolated but has not received proper medical attention.

“We’re just looking for a way to get him out of there to get him the medical attention he really needs,” Ellis said.

It’s this alleged lack of attention that has advocates filing a lawsuit.

“Everything that we know about that jail, from being in there ourselves to hearing from people who are in there now, are that doing the things that keep people safe during this pandemic are not possible,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City.

One of the claims in the lawsuit alleges the jail recently used pepper-spray to force detainees who were in quarantine back into general population. It says those inmates were not retested nor screened for covid-19 symptoms prior to the move.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office released a statement on the incident, saying:

“Around 3:30pm., Tuesday, we had a group of 51 detainees on the 6th floor that refused to return to their housing units. The Detention Response Team (D.R.T) was sent to the floor to help support ongoing efforts to gain voluntary compliance. A chemical agent was released near the detainees after they refused all staff orders to comply and sat on the floor. Shortly thereafter, the detainees complied and were relocated to their respective housing units. There were no reported injuries.”

Ellis says Faulkner was one of the inmates involved in the altercation.

“People move freely in that jail,” Spickler said. “So, it’s the perfect environment for the spread of this disease. Some of those people go home every day to their families and their communities because they work there.”

Last month, health officials reported more than 70 percent of the detainees tested were positive.

Shelby County health officials say the jail is a priority and additional testing is expected to be done in the future.

The sheriff’s office said they do not comment on pending court cases.

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