Coronavirus is spreading in Georgia prisons

Inmates are seen using a kiosk in their cell block that allows them to schedule visits and medical appointments during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Inmates are seen using a kiosk in their cell block that allows them to schedule visits and medical appointments during a tour of the Fulton County Jail on Monday, December 9, 2019, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

COVID-19 continues to spread in Georgia’s jails and prisons.

The disease caused by the novel coronavirus is present in eight of the state’s prisons. Twenty-two people — split evenly among staff and offenders — have tested positive at 10 different facilities, most located in south Georgia. At Lee State Prison, 14 miles north of one of the state’s worst hot spots for the virus, five staff members and seven inmates have tested positive.

At the Fulton County Jail, nine inmates tested positive over a 24-hour period starting Sunday. Fourteen prisoners, all men, have contracted the virus and all but one are being treated in isolation, inside the jail, officials said.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University, predicts COVID-19 deaths won’t peak for another three weeks. As of Monday evening, one state inmate had died after contrating the coronavirus. Anthony Cheek, 49, was 18 years into a 20-year sentence for aggravated child molestation at Lee State Prison.

Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding is among the experts who have warned the virus could spread rapidly inside prison walls.

“What happened on the Diamond Princess should be a cautionary tale for what could happen inside prisons,” she said, referring to the ship quarantined last month off the coast of Japan with hundreds infected.

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable, advocates say.

“This is the very reason that we are asking state and local officials to implement procedures to protect all people who are in our prisons and jails from being exposed to and contracting the COVID-19 virus,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said in response to the Lee State Prison outbreak. “Individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety or are incarcerated awaiting trial because of an inability to pay cash bail should be released. Putting people at risk by keeping them in jails beyond what is necessary for public safety poses a far-reaching health threat to the people incarcerated, the staff, and the greater community.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said through a spokesman he isn’t planning on pushing for early releases because of the coronavirus. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has indicated it won’t change the way it selects inmates for early release.

Fulton County has released 33 non-violent offenders to mitigate overcrowding, sheriff’s spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said. “There are plans to review more files to determine if other non-violent offenders can be granted an early release,” she said.

Flanagan said four inmates who tested positive before the weekend are showing signs of improvement. No jail personnel have tested positive for the disease.

In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, inmate visitation has been limited to video. Everyone who enters the jail, including employees, has his or her temperature taken.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday that he has spoken with President Donald Trump about the need to protect incarcerated citizens, which he called the “highest risk population” for contracting and spreading coronavirus.

“We have to test all inmates,” Jackson said. “I want the president to take a bold move on issues that are inmates are facing.”

— Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

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