Prisoners across the state, who have relayed their experiences during the pandemic through phone or email interviews or via their loved ones, talk of unsanitary conditions and say they’ve been given little more to ward off the virus than bars of soap.
In response, prison officials point to prepared statements about efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The updated information is shared on a dashboard tallying confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Friday, the Georgia Department of Corrections had confirmed 139 confirmed cases in 30 of the state’s 34 detention facilities.
Four people have died — three prisoners and one employee: Calhoun State Prison Deputy Warden Roger Hodge, a 22-year veteran of the DOC. Known as “Big Hodge,” the 48-year-old was promoted to deputy warden in June. Altogether 67 staff members and 72 offenders have been stricken with the disease caused by the coronavirus, with two prisons in south Georgia — Lee State and Johnson State — reporting a combined 44 infections.
Testing has been limited and health officials warn many more are likely infected, or will be unless the state releases at-risk offenders to home confinement until the virus is contained. The state is reviewing clemency petitions for 200 inmates. It would amount to a reduction of less than 1 percent of the prison population; the system houses roughly 52,000 inmates.
“The board believes these additional releases are achieving the goal of creating more flexibility for the Department of Corrections during this pandemic,” said Steve Hayes, spokesman for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles
A GROWING CONCERN
The Fulton County jail has reported 23 inmates have tested positive, 12 of whom are being treated in quarantined conditions, said a spokeswoman for Sheriff Ted Jackson. The others have either been hospitalized or have fully recovered. About 75 inmates have been tested.
Dr. Robert Greifinger, a leading expert on infectious diseases, said the number of infections is certain to be higher. He has called on the jail to reduce its population to no more than 1,500.
“This isn’t just for the inmates’ sake. It’s also for the safety of the staff,” said Greifinger, who served as medical monitor during the federal government’s 11-year oversight of the Fulton jail ending in 2015.
Jails across the state have largely resisted calls to release nonviolent offenders to alleviate overcrowding and slow the spread of COVID-19, said Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“You see a lot of resistance continuing, even in light of a global pandemic,” she said.
On Wednesday, a judge heard arguments in a habeas corpus petition filed by 183 alleged offenders being held at Fulton County Jail. A majority of the petitioners have bonds of less than $10,000, meaning they would be released if they could post a bail of no more than $1,000. All are eligible for early release on consent bonds — a promise to appear at their next court hearing.
The inmates are suing to be released from a facility that Fulton chief jailer, Mark Adger, acknowledged in testimony was significantly overcrowded. The jail was built to house 1,400 inmates. Adger said he’d feel comfortable with a population of around 1800 — about 350 below the current total.
Roughly 100 inmates are housed in so-called “boats” — oversized inflatable devices situated in barely shielded common areas.
“Forced physical proximity, scarce resources for hand washing or sanitizing surfaces, and a shifting population with a host of preexisting ills create an ideal environment for transmission of the virus,” the petition states.
Among those who remain inside: “Petitioner F,” a 54-year-old man with a health condition that makes him more susceptible to respiratory infections. Arrested on drug charges, he’d be out if he could afford $320 bail.
His fate lies in the hands of a committee made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and victims. Objections can be raised by victims and police. Until recently, inmates without a current mailing address were disqualified. Now they must have access to a cellular phone with charging capabilities — a hardship aimed at the poor, Geraghty said.
“These leaders have both a Constitutional and moral obligation to do more to protect incarcerated people and staff,” she said.
Attorneys familiar with the process say roughly 1,000 inmates have been released from the Cobb County Adult Detention Center. The Cobb sheriff’s office would not confirm that total.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said law enforcement “has no interest in keeping the jails crowded,” but noted sheriffs usually have good reason when objecting to an inmate’s release.
“Sometimes the crimes someone’s accused of don’t tell the whole story,” Norris said.
Last month in Tampa, Joseph Edward Williams was one of 164 inmates freed to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading among inmates and jail staff.
"I feel wonderful," said Williams, television channel Bay News 9 reported. "It's a blessing that I'm getting released."
He shot a man to death the next day, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said, and is back in custody.
Back in Georgia, Johnson State Prison inmate Christopher Lanham, 30, is among the prisoners filing petitions for clemency. He has a weakened immune system due to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Simone Cherie of the REFORM Alliance, said he has been quarantined with a 102-degree temperature but hasn’t been tested for COVID-19.
“They told him they ran out of tests,” Cherie said.
Lanham, serving a 10-year sentence for a controlled substance violation, is eligible for parole in September, she said.
Advocacy groups are touting inmates for clemency based largely on their level of health risk. The ACLU has forwarded two candidates: a 65-year-old inmate who suffers from hypertension, diabetes and chronic asthma and an 81-year-old man with diabetes, high blood pressure who recently underwent quintuple bypass surgery.
“None of these men received a death sentence when they were convicted,” said Kosha Tucker, staff attorney for the ACLU of Georgia. “Yet, if they remain in prison, that is what could happen. They could die.”