Inmates at the Bradley County Jail in the US state of Tennessee sent a cry for help to the outside world by holding up messages in the windows of their cells expressing their fear of contracting Covid-19. On June 29, photos of these messages denouncing conditions at the jail went viral on Twitter. Although the jail has since announced that it is Covid-19 free, officers covered the cell windows on July 13, preventing inmates from sharing their messages with the outside world.

Short messages, written on scrap paper and held up to the windows of the Bradley County Jail in Cleveland, Tennessee describe a lack of access to medical care and basic hygienic supplies, as well as the fear of Covid-19 in the jail. Some of them read: “14 day quarantine. No tests, no masks, no way to communicate with outside or family. No court dates”; “Nobody is given underwear, socks and bras! Women bleeding on themselves! Denied medical attention”; and “Help, 4 pods have Covid.”

In late June when the signs appeared, there were 41 cases of Covid-19 in the jail, including 33 inmates, seven correctional officers and one employee. But on July 8, the Sheriff reported that all inmates had recovered from the virus and were moved out of quarantine.

According to the Marshall Project, a non-profit journalism organisation focused on criminal justice, more than 64,000 prisoners in the United States had tested positive for the coronavirus as of July 14. Of these, more than 3,000 cases are in Tennessee. US jails have been particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic due to poor hygienic conditions, close quarters and a lack of sanitary supplies. Lawsuits have formerly been filed against Bradley County Jail for issues including inadequate medical care and overcrowding.

“There’s nobody taking care of these people.”

Tiffani Dailey shared updates from her partner, Jeremy Wade, while he was incarcerated at Bradley County Jail until July 2. When the video below was posted on June 27, Wade was in the quarantine pod.

“We don’t get books, we don’t get cards, we don’t get pens,” Wade said of his time in the quarantine pod of Bradley County Jail. He reports being let outside only two hours per day, having no access to commissary goods, and sharing common items with potentially infected inmates.

Tiffany Dailey reports:
 
When Jeremy was inside, I was terrified. He informed me about the masks and sanitation not being provided. Nobody was cleaning, they weren’t refilling the sanitation bottles. And it’s up to the inmates to clean their own pods and cells. He feared for his own life being near positive Covid-19 inside; there was an outbreak inside the jail.

It’s a revolving door – they say that people are in 14-day quarantine but no. There’s a quarantine pod and in that 14-day period, people can go in and out. On day 14, when you're fixing to be ready to go to general population because you're still showing no signs or symptoms, a person could walk into the pod and then be positive. And there you go. They had 30-some cases positive. They were all in his pod. So now that just opens up another can of worms because all these people who are all getting denied medical treatment, are all in here sick. They've all had it. Some people were negative and they were still forced to be around the positive.​​​​

When friends and family members of inmates at Bradley County Jail shared their stories and asked for help online, their efforts went viral. A petition demanding that inmates be given proper protective equipment and cleaning supplies and a GoFundMe to raise money for prisoners’ bail have both been shared widely on social media. Dailey and others have also organised weekly noise demonstrations outside the jail since June 29. It was at one of these demonstrations that protesters began to see messages held up to the windows.

"Heartbreaking signs held up inside of Bradley County Jail today," this poster writes.
 

In response, the Bradley County Sheriff released a statement saying that they are continuing to follow hygiene and sanitation regulations, including a quarantine procedure. The statement also describes the cleaning equipment provided to prisoners with which they can sanitise their own cells and common items such as phones.

After the public backlash to the messages coming out of the jail, inmates reported receiving more medical equipment and cleaning supplies. The jail distributed masks that had been adapted for use by inmates. As conditions began to improve inside, inmates’ notes in the windows changed from calls for help to messages of gratitude to the activists and family members outside. However, the jail covered cell windows on July 13, cutting off a source of communication between inmates and activists.

 
“Screens are now being placed over the inmates' windows to keep them from holding up signs,” this post reads.

 
“Covering the windows is wrong, we felt disgust”
 
Tiffani Dailey was shocked by such a decision:
 
When you have somebody on the inside, a female inmate, call us and say, ‘Hey, I was the one in the window telling y’all I need help and they covered up my window,’ we felt disgust. It’s wrong. We started the GoFundMe to help with bail as well as commissary because a lot of people in there don’t have funds.

So we try to help them so they can reach out to their family members and get what they need. There’s a lot of people still in there. And that’s why now we’re trying to bring justice to these people that are being denied medical care, being mistreated and cut off from society, being in lockdown and not able to reach their family members.

 
Friends and family of inmates continue to demonstrate outside of the jail and the calls for help are still circulating online. A new non-profit, Bradley County Incarcerated Resolutions, has been formed to support inmates and advocate for better conditions at the jail.

Article by Pariesa Young