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Ga. inmate dies from COVID-19 as virus hits more prisons

Lee State Prison in a 2017 photo. Courtesy of The Albany Herald.
Lee State Prison in a 2017 photo. Courtesy of The Albany Herald.

Before anyone knew about the outbreak, Anthony Cheek phoned his mom from Lee State Prison and complained he’d been feeling sick. On March 10, the inmate told his mother he figured he’d had the flu for the past two weeks, but he assured her he was getting better.

The 49-year-old did not get better.

Cheek died Thursday night at an Albany hospital, where he’d been receiving treatment since five days after calling his mother. Cheek, who was 18 years into a 20-year sentence for aggravated child molestation, counts as the first Georgia inmate to die after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Prison health advocates and Georgians who have incarcerated loved ones fear Cheek may not be the last to die, as COVID-19 spreads through Lee State Prison and cases pop up at other facilities in the state, including county jails and the federal prison in Atlanta. Fears are also rising that outbreaks in prisons, which experts say can be breeding grounds for infectious diseases, could spill out into the communities around them.

“People are scared, and there are a lot of unknowns,” said Billy Mathis, chair of the Lee County commission.

Four staff members from Lee State, the largest employer in the county of 30,000, have tested positive for COVID-19, along with five other inmates, officials said Friday. One employee is hospitalized, the others quarantined at home. Two inmates are hospitalized. Thirteen inmates are in “medical isolation” at the prison while exhibiting flu-like symptoms, and two are awaiting test results to see if they have COVID-19.

It isn't certain how coronavirus arrived in the prison, but Lee County is near Albany, a hot spot in Georgia for the coronavirus. The spread in Albany may be linked to two funerals held about a month ago at an Albany funeral home.

The virus has also made way into other facilities.

An inmate at Phillips State Prison near Buford has also tested positive, prison officials said. Fulton and DeKalb county jails have each reported one inmate testing positive. A staffer at the DeKalb facility and a deputy at the Cobb County Detention Center have as well. Two inmates and one employee at the federal prison in Atlanta also have tested positive, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The ACLU of Georgia, the Southern Center for Human Rights and numerous loved ones of incarcerated people have called on officials to release medically fragile and non-violent offenders to decrease the populations of prisons and jails in the state. Releases, they said, could decrease the harm done by an outbreak, as well as slow an outbreak. Gov. Brian Kemp has declined to support any such releases. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole has said it is still making release decisions based on public safety and not changing because of coronavirus.

“Now that the virus has gotten a foothold in Georgia’s prisons, there is even more risk for incarcerated people of widespread infection and more deaths,” Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in an email Friday.

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said especially non-violent jail inmates awaiting should be considered for release. That would be for the good of “the people incarcerated, the staff, and the greater community,” she said.

At the federal level, Attorney General William Barr instructed prison officials Thursday to expand the use of home confinement for sick or elderly inmates who are serving time for low-level crimes and wouldn’t be a danger to the public. It isn’t yet known what that will mean for federal inmates in Atlanta.

» RELATED: City under siege: Coronavirus exacts heavy toll in Albany

» MORE: Albany becomes unlikely coronavirus hot spot in Georgia

One Atlanta federal inmate’s daughter, Wanda Parris, said she’s tried repeatedly to find out from officials if her 74-year-old ailing father will be released early. He’s in for a drug offense and recently had surgery, which she fears makes him more susceptible to coronavirus.

“We need to get him home as soon as possible,” Parris said.

Inmates at prisons around Georgia continue to complain that they aren’t seeing heightened sanitation efforts and don’t have enough soap.

At Lee State, multiple inmates told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that staff gave out tiny cups of antibacterial soap just once recently, and it wasn’t nearly enough. Guards also passed out face masks, but most inmates aren’t using them. The inmates, who asked that their names not be shared for fear of reprisals, also said some men who have complained of symptoms of coronavirus have been denied medical attention.

Told of these complaints, a Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman did not offer any comment. She directed a reporter to the agency’s website, which says inmates have been given more soap and that sanitation is up at all 34 of its facilities, which house a total of 52,000 men and women. The agency has halted all visitation, eliminated the $5 co-pay for inmates who need medical attention for coronavirus-like symptoms and says it is working closely with the state health department to ensure the safety of staff and inmates.

Both Lee State and Phillips State prisons have restricted inmates’ movement because of the virus.

At Lee State, the lockdown has caused concern for some inmates because it means they must stay in their rooms. Most inmates at the facility are in six-person rooms, where they have trouble practicing the social-distancing measures recommended to limit the spread of coronavirus, several men told the AJC.

Tensions, they said, are high.

“We’re on the edge of pandemonium in here,” said an inmate who is serving five years for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Another inmate, serving life for for an early 2000s murder, said everything has gotten worse since March 15. That was the day Cheek fell out in a gym and was rushed to the hospital. Dozens of inmates saw Cheek, whose mother said he suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, fall suddenly. Two more men were sent to the hospital the next day.

Lee County residents are monitoring the situation at the prison. Two wildly divergent extremes have prevailed, said Jim Quinn, former mayor of Leesburg, the county seat, and editor of the local newspaper.

“There’s one side that says we’re all going to die,” Quinn said. “The other isn’t going to let it bother them.”

Up in Dalton, the gravity of what went wrong at the prison weighed on Cheek’s mother, Joyce Cheek. He planned to come home in two years and work on diesel engines, a trade he learned at Lee State. The mother was looking forward to seeing him free.

She knows others might have a different opinion of her son, but she was close to him, loved him and believed in him.

“I think my son was a very good son,” she said.