Opinion: Recognize virus’ risk to Ga., U.S. prisoners

Hays State Prison, in northwest Georgia, near Trion. Some worry about the potential for the nation’s prisons and jails to become “hotspots” for COVID-19 transmission. PHOTO: GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

Violence, threats and substandard medical care are all part of the so-called “rehabilitation” process in our prisons. After all they are criminals so why concern ourselves with their well-being. Ignoring or even not caring about this class of people isn’t an unpopular point of view. So it should be no surprise that for the 53,000-plus inmates in Georgia prisons, the total medical staff consists of about 50 physicians who are employed by Georgia Correctional HealthCare (which contracts with the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to provide medical services to the state’s prisons). In fact, a 2014 investigation by the AJC, found that one in five Georgia prison doctors were hired despite State disciplinary orders for substandard care and other transgressions.

This historically substandard medical care in Georgia prisons has led to over $3 million of your tax dollars being paid out in settlements in 2018 alone (as reported by the AJC in December 2018). The settlement figures are expected to rise exponentially with Coronavirus. What happens when the health of these inmates is jeopardized? Are we responsible for their medical well-being? With resources being woefully limited, do we have a moral obligation to protect them?

In a recent letter, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. wrote “In prison there are too many people in proximity to each other who do not have the option of social distancing and there are literally millions of persons incarcerated who were arrested, but not convicted, who are languishing there awaiting trial … . My concern is specifically with those arrested for nonviolent crimes … . Because ‘social distancing’ is not an option for prisoners … jail could become an incubator and death sentence for those incarcerated.”

Meghan A. Novisky, a professor of criminology at Cleveland State University who writes about mass incarceration, says prisons are already “prone to infectious diseases … now she fears prisons could become ‘hot spots’ for the virus … [because] jails and prisons will struggle to address this crisis not only because of lack of medical supplies, but because it is likely correctional staff shortages will occur as staff begin to get sick.”

To put it another way, Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding said “What happened on the [cruise ship] Diamond Princess should be a cautionary tale for what could happen inside prisons,” the AJC reported this week. More than 700 passengers and crew members on the cruise ship tested positive for the virus in just a few days. How much deadlier will it be for those in crowded prisons with substandard healthcare.

In the past week, the GDOC website reported several cases of infections at Lee State Prison. Specifically, three (3) offenders remained at the hospital after being confirmed positive for COVID-19 (one admitted March 15th and two admitted March 16th); one offender admitted on March 22nd for observation and flu-like symptoms has yet to be tested; and 10 offenders have been isolated in quarantine at the prison for observation for exhibiting flu-like symptoms — but only four (4) have been tested for COVID-19 and those results are pending. Additionally, at least one corrections employee in Georgia has the virus but GDOC won’t tell us which prison. These modest numbers may be badly skewed as the priority for testing inmates for the virus remains very low.

Nationwide, there are more than 1,700 state prisons, 122 federal facilities and thousands of county jails. A recent report by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, found nearly 40% of inmates are non-violent offenders.

Are we as a society willing to say that paying your debt to society comes with the risk of death due to inadequate medical care and no apparent solution on how to combat this virus? To date, there is no plan to parole non-violent inmates early to minimize the risk to inmates, guards and the many other GDOC employees.

This is unacceptable.

Manny Arora is an Atlanta defense attorney, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a former assistant district attorney in Fulton County.

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