Courts, prisons grapple with potential coronavirus spread

The entrance to the Fulton County Courthouse on the Pryor Street side. The building, now covered in scaffolding, will undergo renovations. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM (AJC FILE PHOTO)

The entrance to the Fulton County Courthouse on the Pryor Street side. The building, now covered in scaffolding, will undergo renovations. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM (AJC FILE PHOTO)

Worried about the spread of the coronavirus, the Superior Court chief judges of Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties have ordered a delay in all court services.

Trials will be suspended. Juries won’t be selected. The order covers the next 14 days in Gwinnett, with Fulton and Cobb courts on hiatus for 30 days. Fulton Chief Judge Christopher Brasher said the virus “substantially endangers or infringes upon the normal functioning of the judicial system.”

Additional closings followed throughout the day. Henry County canceled all superior court hearings for the next two weeks, according to assistant district attorney and public information officer Megan Matteucci. Doraville, South Fulton and Dalton municipal courts also announced 30-day suspensions, while Atlanta's Municipal Court announced operations will be "substantially abbreviated" throughout the next month.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

» RELATED: Number of coronavirus cases in Georgia climbs to 42

Courtroom closings have already occurred in states including Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky and Rhode Island, with more expected in the coming days.

But the bigger challenge for America’s justice system may be inside its prisons. On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Corrections suspended all visitation for inmates and announced a variety of other precautionary measures. Each prison now has a designated “sanitation officers,” who are helping ramp up cleaning efforts. All new inmates arriving are questioned to see if they have been exposed, and the DOC is communicating similar screenings with any person who comes to a prison.

“We are taking this situation seriously, and along with maintaining public safety, we are committed to minimizing any health risks associated with COVID-19,” said corrections Commissioner Timothy C. Ward. “All precautionary steps we are taking are being done so in the best interest of our staff, visitors, and the offenders in our custody.”

Advocates for inmate health say they are concerned that American prisoners are particularly vulnerable, noting the hundreds of cases of the virus reported in Chinese prisons.

The Southern Center for Human Rights on Thursday sent a letter to the state parole board and to the state prison system, urging a variety of precautionary measures to prevent COVID-19 taking hold in correctional facilities.

“Georgia’s prisons house large numbers of elderly people and people with complex medical conditions,” the letter said. “If COVID-19 gains a foothold in Georgia’s prisons, there is a risk of widespread infection and death, particularly for elderly

The Atlanta-based nonprofit also urged the officials to consider the possibility that some inmates may need to be released to get the medical care they need, and that reducing the number of inmates in custody could decrease the changes of major outbreaks.

In an advisory to the jails and prisons, Emory University epidemiology associate  professor Anne C. Spaulding urged correctional officials to stay in contact with health officials and to act quickly to develop plans to deal with issues that could arise from the virus.

“Both those incarcerated and those who watch over them are at risk for airborne infections,” Spaulding wrote. “Prisons and jails are enclosed environments, where individuals dwell in close proximity. Incarcerated persons sleep in close quarters, eat together, recreate in small spaces.”

Spaulding said prisons should be prepared to isolate ill inmates and as well as be ready for other trouble, such as correctional officers calling out sick and medicine and supplies running short. She said the Grand Princess cruise ship should be a cautionary tale. Ships, like prisons, has large numbers of people in close proximity. The ship was prohibited from returning to San Francisco from Hawaii after two passengers contracted COVID-19. Vice President Mike Pence later said 21 people on board had tested positive, and dozens of Georgia residents who were onboard have been transferred to Dobbins Air Force Base for monitoring.

Gwinnett County’s jail is now screening for coronavirus at intake. A Gwinnett sheriff’s spokesperson said additional hand sanitizers have been added to public areas in the jail. And officers are now disinfecting their patrol cars between every transport.

While perhaps not as susceptible to the virus as the prison population, court employees often have close contact with some of the state’s most stressed and vulnerable populations.

Karen Wilkes, a public defender in Polk County, said she grew concerned last week when a hospital patient in Rome, who resides in Polk, tested positive for the coronavirus.

She wrote the county’s judges with recommendations for the next 30 days. Wilkes suggested suspending bench warrants and excusing people over 60 from jury duty, among other measures.

“None of us knows how widespread this virus might become, so it’s possible we may need to do more in the future,” she wrote.

The future may have come sooner than she expected.

On Thursday, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton held an emergency phone call with judges statewide, informing them that chief judges in each judicial circuit are empowered to suspend trials and postpone court calendars.

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