AJC Investigation: The battle against COVID-19 in Georgia’s jails

Thousands have been infected in the state’s local lockups, dozens have been hospitalized and many have died with the disease

LaFayette – Capt. Philip Street routinely wore a mask, diligently washed his hands and convinced the Walker County Sheriff’s Office to buy air purifiers for its aging jail during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Avoiding crowds, he stopped going to church and eating at restaurants. Whenever he returned home from managing the jail, he stripped off his uniform and threw it in the washing machine, hoping to protect his beloved wife, Sherry, from COVID-19. Then he headed straight to the shower so he could clean off whatever might have clung to him inside the lockup.

Nevertheless, the disease would find Street in November of 2020, before vaccines were available. Sherry Street believes her husband contracted COVID-19 in the jail. He succumbed to it the day after his 66th birthday, which fell on Thanksgiving that year.

Thousands of other jail workers and detainees across the state have been infected with COVID-19, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Fresh Take Georgia investigation. Dozens of them have been hospitalized and at least 33 have died with the disease, including people who were held in the Clayton, Coweta, Gwinnett, Walker and Whitfield county jails. Some of those who died were granted bond while they were being hospitalized.

The investigation revealed inconsistent responses to the pandemic among Georgia’s jails, some of which are not keeping track of their numbers of infections and hospitalizations. Unlike Walker County, some jails are not testing their detainees for COVID-19 or offering to vaccinate them, as federal health officials have recommended. At the same time, jails struggled early on to obtain masks and have experienced persistent staffing shortages and increased overtime costs.

Among the many reasons why this all matters: Infectious diseases, including COVID-19 and monkeypox, can spread from jails to surrounding communities. Georgia ranked fifth among states Tuesday for the most monkeypox cases.

In contrast to state and federal prisons, jails in Georgia are run by locally elected sheriffs and mostly hold people awaiting trials, many for minor offenses. Like prisons, jails face serious risks of COVID-19 outbreaks because they hold in close proximity large numbers of people, many of them with preexisting mental and physical health problems.

“It is very easy for the infection to spread into the community when it is carried out or in by officers and staff, who work in the jail and go back home to the communities at night,” said Michele Deitch, who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “Jails are a revolving door.”

Sherry Street still suffers from long-term symptoms her doctor attributes to COVID-19, including weight loss and digestive problems. She believes she contracted the disease from her husband, adding that he intended to get vaccinated before he died. She got vaccinated and boosted but caught COVID-19 a second time last December.

“There are three or four — maybe five — other people I have known personally who have lost their lives to it,” she said. “It is nobody’s fault. And I don’t have anybody to blame for it. But the anger has been kind of hard to get past.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently relaxed COVID-19 guidelines, but jails continue to struggle as infections surge across Georgia and the rest of the nation, driven by the highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.5. Nearly all of Georgia’s 159 counties are experiencing “medium” or “high” levels of COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, who was close friends with Philip Street, described the pandemic as an extraordinary challenge for his office, noting his deputies are also responsible for securing the county courthouse and patrolling hundreds of square miles.

“Back in September of last year, we saw an uptick and had a large number of positive cases, and we simply ran out of real estate. We did not have room anymore to segregate those positive cases,” Wilson said. “For lack of a better expression, we were flying by the seat of our britches for a period of time.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘What are you going to do, put them in jail?’

Bordered by a tall fence rimmed with barbed wire, the Walker County Jail sits across from the courthouse in downtown LaFayette, which was incorporated in 1835 and named after the French military general who aided the Americans during the Revolutionary War. LaFayette is located in the northwest corner of the state, not far from the Alabama and Tennessee borders.

The city is the county seat for Walker County, which, as of Aug. 10, had the 27th highest COVID-19 infection rate per 100,000 residents among Georgia’s counties, according to state Public Health Department statistics. Home to about 68,500 residents, the county has experienced 254 confirmed or probable deaths from COVID-19. Just 42% of Walker’s population is fully vaccinated, while 67% of the nation is, CDC’s data shows.

Built in 1957, the county’s jail is divided into separate cellblocks for male and female detainees, who are clad in traditional black and white striped uniforms. They regularly gather in common areas of their cellblocks to chat and gaze at television sets mounted on the walls.

State health officials have not issued requirements to Georgia’s jails for how to prevent the spread of the disease but have instead offered recommendations and urged them to follow CDC guidelines. When COVID-19 transmission rates are “medium” or “high” in the counties where they are located, according to the CDC, jails should strengthen testing, improve ventilation, require masks, keep people farther apart and restrict work-release programs.

About this project

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Fresh Take Georgia, a digital news service at Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism, collaborated on this project. They asked all of the state’s 142 county jails for information about COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, infections, hospitalizations and deaths. They also interviewed surviving loved ones and combed through obituaries and websites that honor law enforcement officers who have died with COVID-19 in the line of duty. Additionally, AJC journalists obtained documents from jails through Georgia’s Open Records Act, reported inside the Walker County Jail and interviewed sheriff’s office employees there and elsewhere. AJC reporter Jeremy Redmon led the reporting and wrote this article with information supplied by Fresh Take Georgia reporters Lilly Carter, Salome Castro, Caleb Groves, Christian Gehrke, Alex Guevara, Skyler Heath and Melissa Walsh. AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles also contributed to this report.

AJC journalists visited the Walker County Jail on July 14, when the county’s transmission rate was rising from “medium” to “high.” Persistent overcrowding has made it difficult to separate detainees in the jail. Its capacity is 233, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Office of Research, though it regularly holds more. Beds have been placed on the floors in common areas to fit in more people.

On the day of the AJC’s visit, the jail held 244 people, 11 more than its capacity. Five female detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 that day were being held in the same cellblock with 25 others because there was no room to put them elsewhere. Wilson said he was not aware of anyone in that cellblock testing positive in the days afterward.

The jail struggled to obtain masks early on because of supply shortages, Wilson added, but now issues them to everyone booked into the jail. Most weren’t wearing them in their cellblocks during the AJC’s visit, though all of the sheriff’s deputies who were interacting with them were wearing face coverings. The detainees are instructed to wear masks, Wilson said, especially when they leave their cellblocks. But one of Wilson’s senior officers said rhetorically: “What are you going to do, put them in jail?”

The sheriff’s office temporarily stopped allowing detainees to work outside — where some pick up trash and do jobs at a landfill — before resuming that program this summer. Wilson said he would consider suspending it again, depending on the severity of the pandemic.

“Back in September of last year, we saw an uptick and had a large number of positive cases, and we simply ran out of real estate. We did not have room anymore to segregate those positive cases. For lack of a better expression, we were flying by the seat of our britches for a period of time."

- Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson

His office was already experiencing staffing shortages when the pandemic began. It worsened as employees began testing positive and were instructed to remain home for two weeks at a time. As of May, Wilson said, the sheriff’s office had recorded 61 positive cases among its 120 workers. Two of them were hospitalized, including Philip Street.

With the help of public health officials, the jail offers vaccines to detainees and staff, along with testing of those who are symptomatic. Wilson estimated less than half of his employees and about 30% of his detainees have been vaccinated.

The Institute for Health Logistics and Analytics at Georgia Southern University is helping jails seek reimbursement from a federal grant program for their efforts fighting the spread of COVID-19. Twenty-eight are participating in that program now, including the Walker County Jail.

“Personally, I recommend it,” Wilson said of vaccinations. “I got (vaccinated). I was boosted. But I have not made it mandatory, and I have left it up to each individual person to either get it or not get it.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘Am I going to die?’

In September of last year, Wilson’s chief deputy, Maj. Mike Freeman, checked on detainee Jerry Ray Perkins, 73, and found him soaked in sweat, gasping for air and begging for help. Freeman recalled Perkins asked him, “Am I going to die?”

Through May, the jail recorded 160 positive COVID-19 cases among its detainees, including Perkins, a Rossville resident held on domestic aggravated stalking and terroristic threats charges. Wilson said he believes Perkins contracted the disease in the jail, adding he needed special care because of his mental state. A Walker County Superior Court judge ordered Perkins to undergo a mental evaluation in June of 2021. Perkins’ health declined after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 31, so the jail sent him to a hospital in Fort Oglethorpe.

“By that evening,” Freeman said, “they are sending him back, saying, ‘Yeah, he has got COVID. You are just going to have to treat him and all of that.’ A day or two later, he is worse. We send him. He comes back and they tell us, ‘Put him on oxygen. That will help.’ And, luckily, we have some oxygen generators, so we did.”

Freeman said he urged the prosecutor in the case to support releasing him on bond, given his medical condition. On Sept. 8, a Walker County Superior Court Judge signed an order approving his release on bond, court records show, citing a “COVID-19 outbreak at the Walker County Jail” and mentioning that Perkins had tested positive for the disease and was “at risk in the jail.”

Perkins was already in the hospital when the judge’s order took effect, according to the sheriff’s office. He died Sept. 17.

One of Perkins’ relatives declined to comment for this article. His public defender did not respond to requests for information.

Grappling with the pandemic while caring for fragile detainees like Perkins has been especially difficult for the Walker Sheriff’s Office. Typically, about a quarter of the jail’s detainees, Wilson said, have diagnoses for mental health problems.

The jail also routinely houses people battling addiction. Among them is Kenneth Oliver, 50, who has been in and out of the lockup on drug charges. The LaFayette resident said he rediscovered his Christian faith in the jail and achieved sobriety three years ago after getting hooked on pain medication and after using methamphetamine. He said he has contracted COVID-19 twice, including once inside the jail in May. Oliver remembers suffering from a fever and “terrible headaches” then.

“It kind of swept through the dorm so quickly that, by the time the first guy got tested, just about everybody in the dorm had it,” said Oliver, who still has long-term symptoms, including a partial loss of smell. “It was a little tougher because I couldn’t medicate as readily as I did on the street. I couldn’t get as much ibuprofen for the pain and to break the fever.”

Oliver added that his mother, who suffered from lupus, contracted pneumonia and died from COVID-19.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A daughter mourns the loss of her father

Steven Sims was a gregarious truck driver from Riverdale who loved to hit the road and visit friends, said his daughter, Rhonda Williams. He nicknamed her “Popcorn” because of her energy and enthusiasm. She remembered him as a generous man with a good sense of humor.

“He was on the road all the time going somewhere. And he had friends everywhere,” she said. “He was a true lightbulb. He was always shining and happy. Very rarely did I see my dad sad.”

But his personality changed after he suffered from a stroke some years ago and as his mind deteriorated, she said, adding that her father became angry.

In May of 2020, Sims was charged with aggravated assault and murder, court and police records show. The charges stemmed from an alleged dispute he had with another patient at a rehab center in Jonesboro where Sims was being treated for his stroke. Williams said she doesn’t believe her father killed anyone, pointing out that he was debilitated from his stroke and used a wheelchair.

Sims, 69, was sent to the Clayton County Jail, where he was placed in an “isolation cell” because of his coronavirus infection, according to a redacted copy of a Clayton County Sheriff’s Office report obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act. Williams said her family repeatedly tried to contact him but was told by the jail he couldn’t be made available to speak, partly because of his infection.

A nurse and a sergeant were visiting Sims to check his blood sugar and give him breakfast when they discovered his body on June 7, 2020. He wasn’t in a wheelchair but was instead sitting on the floor. His room was in disarray with containers of partially eaten food on the floor.

A Clayton County Death Investigation report says he had an irregular heart rhythm and it lists the manner of his death as “natural,” while adding that he had COVID-19 and had been placed in the jail’s “medical unit.” His death certificate identifies his cause of death as heart disease, though it says no autopsy was performed.

Williams isn’t certain about what killed her father but suspects he was neglected in the jail and not given his medication for hypertension and diabetes.

“I feel like it is my job to find out what happened and to get justice for my dad,” she said. “Where was the care?”

In July of 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit against the Clayton Sheriff’s Office on behalf of four other people who were being held in the jail. The lawsuit alleges Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill and his staff had done little to protect people inside. By December of 2020, 161 detainees and Clayton jail employees had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a judge’s order in the case.

“It is very easy for the infection to spread into the community when it is carried out or in by officers and staff, who work in the jail and go back home to the communities at night. Jails are a revolving door."

- Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs

The sheriff’s office told detainees to use towels, T-shirts, socks or underwear as makeshift masks, according to the lawsuit, and “made no discernible effort to ensure minimally adequate personal hygiene, facility sanitation and disease prevention efforts.” When detainees showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, jailors left them in overcrowded cells for days without attempting to isolate them, the lawsuit alleges.

In court papers filed in response to the lawsuit, Hill’s office forcefully denied the allegations, saying masks were being provided to all detainees and that the jail was following COVID-19 testing, cleaning, medical screening and quarantine procedures. Those court papers also appear to refer to Sims, but not by name, saying a detainee with “underlying health conditions” tested positive for COVID-19 before arriving at the jail and that person’s death was not caused by the conditions and medical care there.

None of the jail’s detainees who contracted COVID-19 in the jail died as a result, the sheriff’s office’s court filings say. But Georgia Public Health Department records say one of the jail’s detainees has died with COVID-19, though those documents do not name that person.

“Far from being deliberately indifferent to this crisis, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and his staff have taken prompt action at the beginning of the pandemic and over the past several months to address and mitigate the threat COVID-19 poses to all in the Clayton County Jail,” the court papers filed by Hill’s attorneys say.

In June of this year, both sides in the class action lawsuit agreed to put their legal battle on hold for four months so they could work on a resolution. Hill’s office, the court documents say, has agreed to continue following CDC guidance and offer detainees opportunities to sign up for COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. Hill, facing a federal indictment stemming from other incidents, was suspended in June 2021 and is set for trial in October. Accused of putting detainees in restraint chairs to punish them, Hill is charged with violating the civil rights of detainees in the Clayton County Jail.

Meanwhile, Williams is still grieving the loss of her father. She said her stepmother, who suffered from dementia, underwent surgery and died soon after her father did.

“My heart breaks today for my sister, brother and family as we go through this pain together,” Williams announced on Facebook after her father and stepmother died.

Her family, she said, is planning to spread her father’s ashes along a highway, where he loved to be.

Credit: Tyson A. Horne

Credit: Tyson A. Horne

They cried together

Eric Bryant remembers crying when he was given a ticket on his birthday by Pete Smith. Smith, a Georgia state patrolman at the time, issued him the citation after Bryant rear-ended another motorist just south of Americus.

“It hurt my feelings so bad, I started crying. And he cried with me,” Bryant recalled. “He was a very compassionate man. He loved people.”

Smith would later become sheriff of Sumter County, southwest of Macon. And Bryant would become his chief deputy.

In 2020, Smith tested positive for COVID-19 while undergoing treatment for a knee injury, Bryant said, and he died with the disease in October of that year. Bryant was elected to replace him the following month. But he was unable to attend the swearing-in ceremony for his newly appointed staff because he had quarantined himself after becoming infected with COVID-19.

Other sheriff’s offices across the state have experienced similarly tragic circumstances during the pandemic. Between April and July, the AJC and Fresh Take Georgia asked all Georgia’s 142 county jails for data about how the pandemic has affected them. Sixty-nine of them responded. Coupled with public records obtained by the newspaper, the jails’ responses revealed:

  • More than 6,900 coronavirus infections among jail detainees and more than 2,300 infections among jail employees.
  • At least 39 detainees and 73 jail employees have been hospitalized with COVID-19.
  • Six people who were held in Georgia jails have died with COVID-19. So have 27 sheriff’s office employees. Sixteen of those employees worked outside of the jails, patrolling communities, securing courthouses and handling other duties.

It’s impossible to accurately compare these statistics to Georgia’s overall population, according to experts, partly because the jail data is incomplete. More than half of Georgia’s jails failed or refused to respond to the AJC’s and Fresh Take Georgia’s questions. And some that did respond said they have not kept counts of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, though they are required to report infections to the state’s Public Health Department.

“It’s a travesty that jails are not keeping track of what is happening in terms of infections and deaths among its detainee population and among staff,” said Deitch, who served as a federal court-appointed monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system. “There is no more fundamental issue than whether the people inside the jail are safe and alive. And if they can’t provide that data, they are not fulfilling a basic obligation.”

Deitch and other experts have spoken in favor of reducing jail populations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Early on during the pandemic, Georgia’s jails scrambled to do just that. The Walker Sheriff’s Office, for example, urged local police and prosecutors to avoid seeking jail time for some defendants. Even so, Walker’s jail has been over capacity for 10 separate months since the pandemic began, according to Georgia Department of Community Affairs Office of Research records.

The number of people held monthly in Georgia’s jails fell by 27% between March and June of 2020 to 27,621. But it has topped 30,000 every month since January 2021, rising to a high of 38,089 in June of this year. The number of jails that were holding more detainees than their capacity reached a high of 28 in July, up from 14 in January.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s jails have adopted widely different approaches for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Certainly, failing to test all symptomatic detainees and staff is unacceptable and not in compliance with CDC guidelines,” said Aaron Littman, who teaches law at the University of California, Los Angeles and who serves as acting director of the COVID Behind Bars Data Project there. He added that “not providing routine opportunities for vaccination is grossly irresponsible.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A lawman with a heart of gold

Philip Street cared deeply about people, including those he guarded at the Walker County Jail, and sought to help them get their lives back on track, said his widow, Sherry Street.

“I’ve heard so many stories since he died of people who were actually in jail or he arrested who have come to me and said, ‘He made such a change in my life,’” she said.

Street graduated from Dade County High School in northwest Georgia, helped manage his family’s hardware store in Trenton and worked as a volunteer firefighter. He became sheriff of Dade County when he was just 29, started a holiday toy drive for children and served as the board president for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Youth Homes, which cares for children who have been neglected and abused.

He won five elections to lead the Dade Sheriff’s Office before going to work in the Walker County Jail. He was passionate about that job, working 12 to 14 hours a day for five or six days a week. As the jail’s administrator, he managed about 35 employees, viewing the younger ones as his own kids.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In November of 2020, Street began experiencing cold-like symptoms. He coughed, struggling to catch his breath. His blood-oxygen level fell. His wife called an ambulance, and he was admitted into the hospital. Because she also had COVID-19, the hospital told her she wouldn’t be permitted inside, so she called him on the phone.

“He said, ‘They’ve got me on some oxygen now. I’m better. I’ll be here two or three days and they will get me straightened out and I will be good,’” she recalled.

But he suffered from a stroke and died a week after getting his positive test results.

Street’s name has been added to the Georgia Public Safety Memorial Wall in Forsyth and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. A highway intersection near his childhood home in Dade County has been named after him.

Street’s daughter, Jordan Powell, remembered tagging along with him on the job when she was a child and eating Oreos and watching “Cops” with him.

“He had a heart of gold – the biggest heart,” she said about her father. “He loved his community.”