Under an 1858 Tennessee law, people awaiting trial in county jails can be shipped to state prison if a judge deems the local jail “insufficient” to handle their medical problems, mental illness or behavioral issues. State policy dictates they are kept in solitary confinement, even if they are mentally unstable or have not committed a disciplinary infraction, reports the USA Tennessee Network with the Marshall Project. From January 2011 through 2017, more than 320 people in Tennessee were declared “safekeepers” under the law. The numbers have grown. In 2013, there were 26 safekeepers; in 2017, there were 86. “You are pouring gasoline on a fire, so to speak, if your reaction to someone who’s got mental health issues or disciplinary issues is to isolate them completely,” said the American Civil Liberties Union’s Tom Castelli.
The law is supposed to relieve a financial burden on local jails and get pretrial detainees necessary care or protect jail staff. People are sent to safekeeping because they are juveniles, pregnant, wrestling with severe mental illness or simply too notorious to remain in county lockup. They have not been convicted of a crime, but all of them are shipped far away from their families and defense lawyers and placed in cells usually reserved for the most unruly, dangerous inmates. One of at least eight states with a safekeeping law, Tennessee has no formal review process to determine if and when inmates should be returned to their original counties. That means safekeepers have sat in isolation for months or even years as they await trial, even if their conditions improve. Safekeeping stays range from a couple of weeks to more than 4½ years. A snapshot from Dec. 31 shows the average stay of safekeepers was 328 days. Fifteen of the 57 people in safekeeping on that day had been held longer than a year.