‘No extra soap’: Georgia inmates say prisons not ready for COVID-19

Prison officials at the Federal Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta which includes a minimum-security camp. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

Prison officials at the Federal Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta which includes a minimum-security camp. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

At the minimum security Atlanta Prison Camp, a satellite of the federal penitentiary, inmates were provided with a series of suggestions in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Among them: Purchase hand sanitizer from the commissary. But that’s not possible, a 71-year-old prisoner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because the commissary warehouse is out of sanitizer.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen,” said the inmate, due to be released in June. Fearing reprisal, inmates and some inmate relatives did not want their identity revealed.

Similar complaints have come from prisoners inside state-run facilities. The Georgia Department of Corrections has said it takes the situation seriously and has instituted a variety of measures to enhance sanitation efforts, including extra soap being placed in every unit. But inmates and their relatives across the state say they haven't received extra soap and haven't seen increased sanitation efforts. The department offered no immediate comment after being told of the complaints Thursday.

Concerns for the safety of prisoners and staff alike heightened Wednesday when the DOC announced an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The employee works at one of the state's 34 prisons, but the agency hasn't revealed the name of the facility where the person works or if he or she had contact with staff or inmates. The employee last worked on Thursday.

The department said it won’t release the name of the prison or any further information about the situation because of “security and HIPAA restrictions.”

Multiple experts said HIPAA, the federal law related to medical privacy, applies to medical providers — not employers. “They should not blame this on HIPAA,” said Peter Swire, a privacy expert at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business.

There have been no reports of Georgia inmates testing positive for the virus, but prisoners and their families are still fearful. Kimberly Williams, whose husband is nearing the end of his sentence at Montgomery State Prison, said she and other families deserve to know where the infected employee worked.

“They are playing Russian roulette with everyone’s lives,” she said.

The wife of a Dodge State Prison inmate fears for the health of her husband and others incarcerated.

“No extra soap. No hand sanitizer. No hot water. Guards calling out (sick),” she said Thursday. “I truly feel that all non-violent offenders should be released. If this is a crisis for all of us, it should be a crisis for them.”

Fearing reprisal against her husband, the Dodge State inmate’s wife also did not want her identity revealed. The AJC confirmed details about the inmates quoted or referenced in this article through prison records. The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.

So far there have been no reports of exposure inside the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The absence of information has more than just prisoners and their families worried. In Calhoun County, located in southwest Georgia, an entire community is waiting for answers. Calhoun State Prison is the largest employer in the county, and COVID-19 has struck that quadrant of the state especially hard. Four of the first 10 coronavirus-related deaths in Georgia occurred at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in nearby Albany, which has registered 43 positive results.

Nearly 500 patients, most of them self-quarantined in their homes, are awaiting the outcomes of their tests, according to information provided by Phoebe Putney. Supplies there are already running low. An outbreak at Calhoun prison would be especially catastrophic.

“We know we are not yet at the peak of this health emergency,” said Steven Kitchen, Phoebe Putney’s chief medical officer. “More of the patients we are currently caring for will end up with positive COVID-19 tests, and more people in the community will contract the virus.”

» AJC comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

An inmate at the transition center at Arrendale State Prison in northern Georgia said she and the more than 100 other women there have been kept there and unable to work since Monday. Inmates at transition centers leave the facility most days to be escorted to and from work and have much more freedom than typical prisoners. Now they aren’t leaving at all. The inmate, who is set to be released later this year, said she doesn’t understand why the Department of Corrections or the parole board hasn’t started trying to release at least some nonviolent offenders to decrease the size of the prison population.

In a letter posted to its website Wednesday, the ACLU of Georgia urged Gov. Brian Kemp to commute sentences ending in the next year and to release inmates held on a “technical supervision violation” or those identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “particularly vulnerable” whose sentence concludes in the next two years.

“The urgency of deliberate and thoughtful action is imperative,” executive director wrote Andrea Young wrote.