Medical administrator claims Ga. prison retaliated after she pushed for more COVID testing

Stock photo of a prison.

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Stock photo of a prison.

There was no plan for dealing with the threat of the coronavirus at Autry State Prison, said its former health services administrator, Julia “Judy” Hendricks.

Even after Lee State Prison, 47 miles away, registered multiple positive tests, Hendricks said there were few preparations for handling a potential outbreak at Autry.

“Everything we did was reactive,” said Hendricks, who was in charge of medical services at the medium-security facility in southwest Georgia, home to roughly 1,600 inmates.

Prison officials, she said, told her, “We’re not going to make a problem where we don’t have one.”

An Autry kitchen employee was the first to show symptoms. When no one else on the kitchen staff tested positive, Hendricks said, “that created a false sense of security.”

Still, she knew the infected employee had interacted with inmates. Acting on the advice of the state Department of Health, Hendricks pushed for more testing. It cost her job, she said.

The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment. Throughout the pandemic, the department has shared little information about what was happening in prisons. It hasn’t addressed mass testing, even as neighboring Florida, Tennessee and Texas have adopted aggressive testing in their prisons.

A familiar pattern

Inmates and their families have contacted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to complain about the lack of hand sanitizer or hot water since the pandemic began. Some said cellmates would show symptoms for days before receiving care.

“You just about had to be dead before they’d give you a test,” Hendricks said.

Carol Mobley’s son is an inmate at Dooly State Prison.

“He says that the tensions and the testosterone are causing guys to turn on one another,” said Mobley, who asked that her son’s name not be published for fear of reprisals. “He told me that they are all going to die in there.”

As of Friday, 746 staff members and 1,512 offenders statewide have tested positive, while 42 inmates and two staff members have died, corrections department data show. Slightly more than 53,000 people are incarcerated in state correctional facilities.

Those figures are likely 10 times below the actual number of infections, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tennessee, for example, has recorded more than 3,300 cases, almost double Georgia’s total, even though Tennessee has far fewer prisoners - about 30,000 - according to figures compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative. Tennessee started mass testing of inmates in April.

The CDC looked at 16 correctional facilities nationwide which had previously tested only symptomatic prisoners. Mass testing, conducted from April 11 to May 20, increased the total known cases from 642 to 8,239, the CDC found.

“A policy where you seldom test people without symptoms is a dangerous one,” said Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding, one of the authors of the study. “Infected persons without symptoms can transmit infection to others.”

‘That can’t be’

Inmates started pouring into Autry’s infirmary around the middle of April. By then, 43 had tested positive for the virus, Hendricks said

“That can’t be,” Hendricks said she was told by prison officials.

Nine prisoners had been transported to Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, she said. Three Autry inmates would eventually die from complications caused by COVID-19.

Hendricks believed an outbreak was imminent.

“We started realizing the sick were all coming out of the same dorm,” she said.

Still, testing was strongly dissuaded, with Autry’s leadership saying it would only create more confusion and chaos, she said. At the same time, the Department of Health urging additional screening.

“I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Hendricks said. “It didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t we test?”

In an email to the prison’s warden, Hendricks said she had received 100 kits from the Department of Health with instructions to test those running a temperature or showing symptoms - well short of the kind of mass testing truly needed, experts say.

The testing was canceled hours before it was to take place, and three days later, Hendricks said, she found that her security clearance had been revoked. She had been placed on administrative leave by her employer, Augusta University, which is contracted to supply medical services for the DOC statewide.

“We are guests in the warden’s house,” said Page Fletcher, newly retired as Regional Health Services Administrator for Augusta University’s Department of Correctional Healthcare.

Fletcher said he was surprised by the news, as the prison had never before lodged any complaints about Hendricks’ performance.

“If anything, Judy over-communicates,” Fletcher said. “She was one of my sharpest administrators. Such attention to detail. But they didn’t like her sharing those numbers with the Department of Health, even though there were no prohibitions on that.”

Fletcher said he retired a year earlier than anticipated in part because of the way Hendricks was treated.

“If it could happen to her it could happen to me,” he said.

Hendricks was offered a new assignment 130 miles away. She refused and took a job as a school nurse, with a $26,000 cut in pay.

“I have a chronically ill and debilitated husband for whom I am the primary caregiver,” she said.

She believes her push for additional testing led to her ouster.

“They just don’t want the public to know the actual numbers,” Hendricks said. “The official policy was to keep a lid on it.”

“I think they’ve given up”

Susan Sparks Burns, the mother of a former inmate, operates the Facebook page “They Have No Voice,” with updates on the state’s 34 prisons from offenders, family members, guards and other employees.

“They had all of March to plan and they did nothing,” said Burns of the DOC’s coronavirus preparations.

Reports of serious guard shortages were evidenced during a recent riot at Ware State Prison.

“We are too short staffed to safely run the prison,” Danyelle Campos, who’d been a guard there for nine months but wasn’t on duty during the riot, wrote in a resignation letter. “Too many officers are being put in unnecessary risk and nothing is being done.”

At Autry, there were many days when the prison had one security officer for every 400 inmates, Hendricks said. For several months, there wasn’t a doctor on staff, she said.

“These guys down there, yes, they’ve done something wrong and they deserve to be punished,” she said. “But they don’t deserve to be treated like animals.”

Earlier this week, an Autry nurse said an inmate with COVID-19 symptoms was supposed to be isolated until his test results were known. The nurse, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, said guards returned the sick prisoner into general population instead.

His test came back positive on Thursday, the nurse said. No additional tests are planned.