3 Georgia prison inmates test positive for COVID-19, others monitored



After days of concern about the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, three Georgia inmates are now confirmed to have the infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The incarcerated men are from Lee State Prison, a 762-unit medium-level detention center in southwest Georgia’s Lee County, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. All three men have been hospitalized since earlier this week.

The news is sure increase calls by inmate health advocates for the state of Georgia to consider releasing nonviolent or medically fragile inmates, especially those whose sentences are almost up. The advocates say this would decrease the prison population and, thus, the potential size of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars, where inmates are often housed in close proximity to one another.

So far, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has indicated it hasn’t changed the way it selects inmates for early release. Gov. Brian Kemp, whose office has been deluged with emails from inmates’ loved ones this week, doesn’t have plans to back a push for early releases because of coronavirus, said a spokesman.

The cause for fears of the virus spreading in prisons could be seen by what’s happened at Lee State.

In addition to the three inmates who tested positive, three other Lee State inmates are “under observation for exhibiting flu-like symptoms,” the department of corrections said. “Measures have been taken to screen and quarantine the entire inmate population at that facility,” the agency said in a news release. “All staff are being screened prior to entry, to include temperature screening, and currently no staff have exhibited signs of flu or COVID-19.”

The agency hasn’t responded to questions about how many inmates have been tested at its 34 prisons across Georgia.

» AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: The coronavirus in Georgia

After the department announced an employee had tested positive this week, Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward said in a statement that the department would respond with “all available resources to help prevent the potential introduction and spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) into our facilities.” But corrections officials declined to reveal which prison the employee worked at, citing “security and HIPAA.”

HIPAA, the federal medical privacy law, does not apply to employers and shouldn’t keep the prison system from saying the name of the prison where the infected employee works, experts said.

» RELATED: DOC employee contracts COVID-19 amid calls for prison depopulation

» MORE: Fulton Jail begins releasing nonviolent pre-trial detainees

At a time when federal health officials have recommended social distancing, along with limitations on the size of gatherings and meetings, public health experts and prison advocates have expressed worry that people serving time are uniquely vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.

"People in custody cannot protect themselves,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU’s Georgia Chapter, said in a statement this week. “This situation makes it even more urgent for state and local officials to implement procedures to protect all people who are in our prisons and jails from being exposed to and contracting the COVID-19 virus.”

The fear of coronavirus getting into Georgia prisons has had inmates and their families on edge for days.

A Dodge State Prison inmate’s wife, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal against her husband, was concerned by the news, which renewed her fear that prison officials aren’t doing enough to protect inmates.

“Why are they not trying to protect the inmates who have no voice and no way to protect themselves within those walls?” she asked.

The prison system has said it takes the coronavirus situation seriously, which is why they’ve ramped up sanitation and stopped all visitation. Officials say inmates have access to extra soap for handwashing.

» RELATED: 'No extra soap': Georgia inmates say prisons not ready for COVID-19

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Inmates and their relatives throughout Georgia have reported this week that they haven’t seen the increases in sanitation that officials promised.

Of the 14,000 Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus, only a fraction of those are confirmed to be behind bars, including an inmate at Rikers Island in New York, who was moved into isolation. Corrections employees in multiple states — including Alabama, New Jersey, and Wisconsin — have also tested positive.

To prevent the spread, some prison systems — including Georgia — have barred visitors from their facilities. The Georgia system has also waived the medical $5 co-pay for inmates who have COVID-19 symptoms.

Waiving the co-pay was one of the measures urged by the Southern Center for Human Rights in a letter sent earlier this month to the prison system, a letter which gave a grim forecast if officials didn’t work quickly to fight the virus.

“Georgia’s prisons house large numbers of elderly people and people with complex medical conditions,” the letter said. “If COVID-19 gains a foothold in Georgia’s prisons, there is a risk of widespread infection and death, particularly for elderly.”