Jails, prisons try to hold off COVID-19 as critics want more done

A look at Phillips State Prison in Buford Monday, Oct. 15, 2007. (Vino Wong/AJC)

If an infectious disease infiltrated a detention center, public health experts agree catastrophe could follow.

Because inmates are often in crowded quarters and can’t practice social distancing, jails and prisons across Georgia are making serious operational changes to limit chances of an outbreak. Inmate health advocates and relatives of incarcerated people in Georgia are calling for even more to be done to protect them.

In DeKalb County, the jail has temporarily stopped accepting inmates transferred from other facilities unless they’re charged with violent felonies, sex offenses or domestic violence, the Sheriff’s Office said. In Fulton County, the Sheriff’s Office said it is considering early release for some inmates who are serving a sentence at the jail. (Gwinnett and Cobb county jail officials said they had no plans to release or not take inmates.)

The Georgia Department of Corrections has halted visits for all prison inmates, including from their attorneys, and has instituted stronger sanitation measures to combat the virus. And if inmates have coronavirus-like symptoms, the corrections agency said it is waiving the $5 co-pay usually required from inmates for doctor visits.

A Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman said thus far, no inmate or employee has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. There have also been no reports of coronavirus reaching local jails.

But advocates for inmate health have been calling for days for jails and prisons to release nonviolent offenders in an effort to reduce crowding in the facilities.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is “operating normally regarding parole considerations,” a spokesman said Tuesday, adding: “Parole decisions are made based on what’s in the best interest of public safety.”

The board said last week it would review a request by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which urged the board to consider the possibility that some inmates may need to be released to get medical care, and that reducing the number of inmates in custody could decrease the risk of major outbreaks.

Georgians who have incarcerated loved ones have similar fears.

“It does scare me that him and all the inmate population will get it. They’re in close confinement,” said Heather Bracewell, whose fiancé is in Coastal State Prison and up for parole in three months. “I don’t see how it’s beneficial to keep nonviolent offenders in prison at this time.”

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.”

John Harris, who did seven years in state prison before he became a paralegal helping inmates, said he fears things could get ugly if officials don’t work diligently to keep inmates safe. In Harris’ experience, the prisons are overcrowded and populated by people who are often in poor health because many have smoked and have little to do behind bars but be sedentary.

Harris said Tuesday that he fears such inmates couldn’t survive the virus.

“I am far from an alarmist,” said Harris, who works for Pike County attorney David G. Brisendine III. “I’m just being a realist.”

Jennifer Harrell is worried about her husband at Hays State Prison, whose sentence ends in less than three months. He has asthma, she said.

“He’s really at risk for this virus,” Harrell said, adding she very much wishes the state would consider expediting release for inmates, especially those who have respiratory issues.

Georgians who have incarcerated loved ones are looking with a hopeful eye to states such as Ohio and California, where jails are decreasing bail amounts and, in some cases, not booking arrestees into jail at all. "Our population within our jail is a vulnerable population just by virtue of who they are and where they're located," Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday, according to the LA Times. "So we're protecting that population from potential exposure."

Some Georgians are hoping for similar statements from the lips of officials here.

Bracewell worries that her fiancé and other inmates are not only contending with a scary virus, but with a stigma.

“Everyone that’s in the inmate population are not bad people,” she said. “They’re part of our society too.”

Staff writer Christian Boone contributed reporting.

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