Opinion: Prisons’ culture of secrecy endangers Georgians

08/11/2021 — Alto, Georgia — The exterior of Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Wednesday, August 11, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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08/11/2021 — Alto, Georgia — The exterior of Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Seven Georgia legislators were recently denied access to Lee Arrendale, the state’s largest women’s prison, when they showed up for an unannounced visit.

Alarming reports of unsafe conditions and illegal shackling and solitary confinement of new mothers had drawn the legislators’ attention, but they were told any visit would have to be scheduled. There’s a reason the Georgia Department of Corrections insists on scheduling visits. The Department has a history of covering up problems, including allegations that it paints over mold on walls and attempts to minimize or hide human rights abuses in advance of inspections.

This culture of secrecy extends to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ mismanagement of the spiraling public health crisis. As the even-more-contagious Delta variant drives a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s critical that government agencies track the spread and take common-sense precautions to protect the people of Georgia, both inside prisons and in Georgia’s communities.

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Josh McLaurin

Credit: contributed

Josh McLaurin

Credit: contributed

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Josh McLaurin

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Instead, the Georgia Department of Corrections seems to be pretending the pandemic is over: It has stopped reporting data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in Georgia’s prisons entirely. In all likelihood, the agency’s silence is covering up a resurgence of infections inside.

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Hope Johnson

Credit: contributed

Hope Johnson

Credit: contributed

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Hope Johnson

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In the last 14 days, COVID-19 cases are up by 58% in Georgia, and COVID-19 deaths are up by 86%. Despite these dramatic increases, on July 19th, the Georgia Department of Corrections took down their data dashboard, claiming this decision was “due to the declining number of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates across Georgia Department of Corrections facilities and successful vaccination rates.” This is a dangerous decision and promotes a dangerous delusion.

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Amanda Klonsky

Credit: contributed

Amanda Klonsky

Credit: contributed

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Amanda Klonsky

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Even before the Georgia Department of Corrections removed the dashboard, its publicly available COVID data was unreliable and of low quality. The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Project gave the state of Georgia an F on its data reporting scorecard due to irregular updates, undercounted cases, and unavailable testing data.

The Project found that only 25% of employees of the Georgia Department of Corrections reported being vaccinated at the time of this announcement, and only 62% percent of incarcerated people in Georgia had gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. This is a far cry from the 70% goal set by President Biden for all Americans. The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, coming in at just 40%, and surging cases on the outside inevitably find their way into prisons.

Prison workers — including correctional officers and medical staff — come and go from prisons each day, carrying the virus inside prisons and back home to their families and communities. The low rates of vaccination among prison staff, combined with a failure to track and report data on viral spread, could prove once again to be a deadly combination for the people of Georgia.

People incarcerated in Georgia have already paid a high price for the inaction of prison officials. At least 93 incarcerated people and 4 staff have died of COVID-19, and Georgia has the second-highest case fatality rate, or percentage of those with reported infections who die, among all prison systems.

This alarming number of deaths underscores the need for increased health protections for people in jails and prisons. The Southern Center for Human Rights has been tracking the abusive and inhumane conditions faced by incarcerated people during the pandemic. In April 2021, the Center sent a letter to the warden of Lee Arrendale about the maltreatment of the more than 1,200 women held inside the facility during the pandemic. Page Dukes of the Southern Center explained to us, “Georgia’s Department of Corrections has placed COVID patients, along with women who just gave birth, into solitary confinement rather than getting them the treatment they need and deserve. We’ve received several reports of women left in the same bloody clothes they were wearing during childbirth, for days. With this kind of neglect routinely taking place, it’s no wonder that Georgia’s prisons have had so many deaths among incarcerated people and staff.”

The disaster in Georgia prisons is no surprise to public health experts. Since the early days of the pandemic, medical experts have urged prison officials to reduce the number of people in prison, pointing out that meaningfully reducing the incarcerated population was the most effective way to reduce viral spread. But the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles approved only 200 individuals for early release, or less than half of one percent of the roughly 46,000 people incarcerated in the state.

Now is the time for state officials to take resolute steps to gain control over COVID-19 in Georgia’s prisons. This starts with the basics: ramped-up testing and publicly reporting rates of infection and death for each facility. Other necessary steps include mandated vaccines for prison staff, improved access to health care, and reducing the number of people in prison. The culture of secrecy and resistance to oversight at the Georgia Department of Corrections presents a significant threat to public health and safety.

The pandemic is not over. We can’t pretend it is. But we can take concrete steps to slow it to a halt. Failure to inform the public of how the COVID-19 crisis is evolving in prisons will prove lethal. All Georgians have a right to expect accurate, timely information and access to quality health care in this unprecedented emergency.

State Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, represents House District 51.

Hope Johnson is a data fellow at the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Project.

Amanda Klonsky is a research and policy fellow at the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Project.