Women’s prison ravaged by COVID, fear

Pulaski State Prison

“The virus has hit the prison. All I can do is pray.”

Mozel Anderson, a 78-year-old inmate at Pulaski State Women’s Prison, shared her fears in a July 27 letter to her son, Bryant. She had been in one prison or another since 1998, when she was convicted by a Fulton County jury of fatally shooting her neighbor.

Pulaski, Anderson told her son, was the worst facility she’d been in. She wrote regularly to Bryant and her other son, Barry, sharing harrowing details of life inside the medium-security facility. Busted pipes, she said in one letter, were “repaired” with plastic bags.

“The water smells like (feces),” Anderson wrote in a July 22 letter to Barry. “This place needs to be shut down.”

Her letters stopped when she contracted COVID-19 sometime around the first of September. She would be dead within two weeks, one of two prisoners at Pulaski to die of the virus. The Middle Georgia correctional facility remains a hotbed; as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Corrections, there were 108 cases — 41 staff members and 67 offenders.

The outbreak is reflected in Pulaski County’s COVID count: 227 confirmed cases in August and September, with 20 deaths. Pulaski is one of Georgia’s smallest counties, with just over 11,000 residents.

Wendy Lestikow was recently released after completing a two-year sentence at Pulaski

Credit: Wendy Lestikow

Credit: Wendy Lestikow

One recently released prisoner said at least half of the prison’s 1072 inmates are infected. Wendy Lestikow, who completed a two-year sentence for child cruelty in August, remains in contact with five prisoners. She described conditions as “medieval.”

“They see us as if we’re subhuman,” she said.

The states acknowledges “every dorm at Pulaski has been placed on lockdown at some point due to COVID-19 reasons.”

GDC spokeswoman Joan Heath said the agency “has taken numerous measures to ensure the safety and welfare of staff and offenders at Pulaski SP.”

“Each offender at Pulaski has received four personal, washable cough/sneeze masks, to-date and we continue to issue on an as-needed basis,” she said.

The prison has also supplied additional cleaning supplies and anti-bacterial soap “over and above regular issue," Heath said. It has also enhanced sanitation at all entry points.

Critics say those measures are far from sufficient.

“It’s an unmitigated crisis,” said Sarah Geraghty, lawyer for the Southern Center of Human Rights. The organization, which lobbies on behalf of prisoners' rights, has formally requested federal intervention at Pulaski and three other Georgia prisons: Ware State, Macon State and Georgia State.

“State agencies, including the Department of Corrections and the parole board, must act immediately to avoid preventable deaths," Geraghty said.

The Department of Justice is considering opening an investigation, requesting additional information about conditions inside the state’s correctional facilities, she said. The DOJ declined comment.

An investigation can’t come soon enough, said Debra Sue Turner, who was released from Pulaski on Sept. 3 after serving 18 months on a probation violation charge stemming from a burglary charge. She said she feels lucky to have gotten out alive.

“The last two weeks of my sentence I quarantined myself in my cell,” said Turner, 57.

The virus was spread after about 100 prisoners were transferred from Arrendale State, she said.

“They didn’t even have enough staff to run the prison,” Turner said. “Guards were quitting left and right. We were left alone from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m."

This was soon after the death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police after allegedly passing a counterfeit bill. Tensions, already running high as the virus spread, were exacerbated, Turner said.

“I felt like I have left a war zone,” she said.

Pulaski is not the only state prison on the brink, Geraghty said. Many others are woefully understaffed, she said, leaving vulnerable prisoners unprotected.

That’s led to homicides and suicides, the Southern Center said. Twenty-one people have been killed in the state prison system this year, with six of the homicides occurring at Macon State Prison. Nineteen inmates have killed themselves in 2020, twice the national average in state prisons, the center said.

And the virus continues to spread. The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification reports 166 cases. More than 200 offenders at Coffee Correctional have tested positive. Valdosta State and Ware State each have 58 infected staff members, according to the GDC.

But a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates those numbers barely scratch the surface. The CDC found that Georgia’s refusal to conduct mass testing inside its prisons has resulted in a dramatic undercounting of infected inmates and employees. The actual number could be up to 10 times more, the study concluded.

The GDC, in response to an open records request, says they have documents showing the number of tests administered at Pulaski.

The facility had problems well before the COVID hit, said Lestikow, who was incarcerated there for two years.

For a time, she said, meals consisted of bologna sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Additional prisoners at Pulaski and other state facilities have repeated that same charge.

“They are still locked down on quarantine for over two months now,” Lestikow said.

One week after she was released, Turner learned her best friend from Pulaski had tested positive for COVID.

“I’m really frightened for her,” Turner said.

Bryant and Barry Anderson did not find out about their mother’s illness until a week after she was hospitalized. Her funeral was held Sept. 23 in East Point.

“No one told us anything,” Bryant Anderson said. “We didn’t even know which hospital she was in."

By then Mozel Anderson was on a ventilator. Confined to a wheelchair because of chronic pain, she was diabetic and suffered from kidney-related problems, making her particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“She didn’t get a chance to say anything to us, and we didn’t get to talk to her,” Bryant Anderson said.

But her letters spoke volumes.

“The Bible say you can’t run or hide," she wrote in in one of her final letters to Barry. “You got to be strong and believe in Him, He is stronger than any virus.”

Mozel Anderson wrote to her son in July that coronavirus had come to Pulaski State Prison. She died of COVID-19 in September.

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