NAACP files lawsuit against Georgia prison

Friends and family of an inmate about to be released wait for him outside the gate of the Coffee Correctional Facility. The state NAACP has sued the prison alleging inhumane conditions.  (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Friends and family of an inmate about to be released wait for him outside the gate of the Coffee Correctional Facility. The state NAACP has sued the prison alleging inhumane conditions. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

State ‘flagrantly ignoring’ COVID-19 risk, inmates claim in federal suit

To stay dry, some inmates at the privately run Coffee Correctional Facility wrap themselves in garbage bags when they go to sleep, three inmates allege in a federal lawsuit. Water runs down the walls into the bunks from leaks that popped up five years ago, while the thick, moist air has resulted in dark mold evident on walls throughout the facility, the suit claims.

Those conditions, according to the suit filed by three inmates and the Georgia NAACP, leave an already vulnerable population even more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward and CoreCivic Inc., the company that owns and operates Coffee, are among the defendants accused in the suit of “violating the constitutional rights of inmates by failing to protect them from infection.”

“Coffee Correctional Facility and the GDC are flagrantly ignoring the risk created by COVID-19,” said Georgia NAACP State President James Woodall. “They’re not testing individuals who display symptoms or who are exposed to symptomatic cases. They’re not enforcing social distancing. They’re not providing enough masks for those who are incarcerated. And they’re not making guards wear masks.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections has said it “is responding with all available resources to help prevent/mitigate the potential introduction and spread of coronavirus” and that it “has implemented a phased approach to include activating GDC’s Pandemic Emergency Response Team, planning and education, preparedness and response.”

The department didn’t respond to requests for comment in specific response to the recently filed lawsuit’s allegations and has remained quiet amid other complaints about inhumane conditions inside many of its 35 prisons statewide. In September, the Southern Center for Human Rights issued a report detailing a humanitarian crisis in which homicide and suicide rates had already reached “unprecedented levels. They’ve asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

“We are beyond the crisis point and something needs to change,” Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread through the system. More than 3,200 inmates have been infected so far. Eighty-eight have died. Roughly 1,500 employees have tested positive.

Coffee, which has a current population of just more than 2,600, has reported 235 cases resulting in five deaths. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those figures are likely 10 times below the actual number of infections.

“This number absolutely misrepresents the scope of the spread of COVID-19 in Coffee County,” Woodall said. “The correctional facility has refused to test many people with symptoms and those exposed to the virus. So not only do correctional officials not actually know the number of individuals who’ve contracted COVID-19, but they also have no means of trying to keep those on the inside safe.”

At Coffee, inmates sleep shoulder to shoulder in dormitories, separated by a mere 18 inches, the NAACP lawsuit claims. Testing is performed infrequently and only for those who exhibit symptoms of the virus, it says.

Defendants Wesley Brown, 39, Donald Futch, 56 and Franklin Simmons, 67, “face a substantial risk of serious harm and/or death without this Court’s intervention,” the lawsuit states.

About 60% of Georgia’s prison population is Black, “a group which has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” the NAACP notes.

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