Two recent inmate deaths in Hamilton County raise questions about the virus behind bars

The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) reported Monday that murder suspect Charles Levada Shelton died at a local hospital due to COVID-19 complications .On August 30th we reported on the death of Morghan Elmore. HCSO says she was 30 and had just given birth to her second child when she died from COVID-19.

According to HCSO, 43 inmates at Silverdale have tested positive for COVID-19 since the first of the year.

As of September 7th, eight inmates are now quarantining following a positive COVID-19 test.

On Monday, we asked Hamilton County Sheriff Hammond about this latest in-custody death & about current COVID-19 protocols at Silverdale.

“This particular gentleman 31 years old, that’s pretty young, but he did have COVID. We make the masks available, we make the shots available, we quarantine as much as we can,” he told us.

It outlines recommendations for new inmate intake, which includes a screening for symptoms, temperature taking, and segregating new arrivals from other prisoners until the screening process is over.

It also outlines recommendations for law enforcement and all personnel working in prisons or jails, which includes similar regular screening, the use of gloves, and full PPE for anyone coming into regular physical contact with inmates.

“I wish we had a way to quarantine more than we do. But it is what it is. The courts have been good about putting as many out on bond as they can on ankle braces, but there are some of them that have to be confined,” said Hammond.

Hammond says Shelton was one of these inmates.

Charles Shelton is one of 3 men accused of murdering Bianca Horton in 2016.

Horton was a witness and was set to testify in a shooting that left her daughter paralyzed before she was killed later that year.

“Unfortunately this gentleman had some pretty serious charges,” said Hammond.

Shelton has been in HCSO custody since 2018. The sheriff office says he was hospitalized for 3 weeks before he died of COVID-19 at 31 years old.

Researchers at UCLA have tracked data on covid19 in prisons  for more than a year.

Erika Tyagi is a Senior Data Scientist with the UCLA Law Covid Behind Bars Data Project.

The researchers have scraped data from a number of state and federal prisons.

According to their data, across the country inmates are 5 times more likely to catch COVID-19 and 3 times more likely than the general public to die from COVID-19.

“This just goes to show how much worse COVID is so people and people in incarceration facilities,” said Tyagi.

Tyagi says jails are typically overcrowded and that inmates are particularly at risk for covid because jail cells make it difficult to social distance.

She says that while the data researchers on her team track is for federal and state prisons, the situation is likely more alarming for county jails like Silverdale Detention Center.

At Silverdale, inmates are held for shorter periods of time than in federal or state prisons. Inmates st the Silverdale Detention Center are only held until they make bond or are convicted.

“There’s just so much more movement coming in and out of county jails, and again, sustained movement of people in and out of communities. That means that you’re just inevitably going to have outbreaks,” said Tyagi.

For Chattanoogans with loved ones at Silverdale, the data can be startling.

Theresa Jordan says her son is an inmate. She says her son has both asthma and bipolar disorder and that as a mother of an inmate, she’s got concerns about both his treatment inside the jail and COVID19 right now.

“It scares me. You know, it really does scare me. I can’t sleep at night. I cry a lot because I have reached out to other people and nothing has been done. You know, it’s really scary,” said Jordan.

According to the Sheriff’s office, there are currently no mask or vaccine mandates at the jail for either corrections staff or inmates, but they do offer both upon an inmates request.

View the HCSO’s statement below:

The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Division is going to great lengths to follow CDC guidelines and sanitize the Silverdale Detention Center on a consistent basis. The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to work with Health Department personnel and our contract in-house medical provider, QCHC, to safeguard the health of our inmates and personnel due to COVID-19.

In addition to following CDC and Health Department protocols, masks and cleaning supplies are available to inmates as requested. Our contract, in-house medical provider QCHC also provides the COVID vaccine to inmates who wish to receive it. Lastly, we are also isolating and quarantining inmates who have been exposed or test positive.

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