Georgia Prison Employee Tests Positive For Virus As Activists Raise Alarm

Public health experts are urging jails and prisons to take steps to reduce their incarcerated populations as coronavirus risks continue to grow.

David Goldman / Associated Press

A Georgia state prison employee has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Georgia Department of Corrections is not saying at which of its 34 state prison facilities the employee worked. The person last reported to work last Thursday; the same day prison officials suspended visitation statewide – including for attorneys and volunteers.

The department said it’s practicing “enhanced” screening and cleaning protocols. Inmates are being given two free phone calls and four electronic messages a week. The department is also waiving a $5 co-pay for doctors visits for inmates who show coronavirus symptoms.

Since Friday, state prisons in Washington and New York each reported infections in one of their workers. Individual inmates have reportedly tested positive for the virus in jails in New York City, Long Island and San Antonio. New York City is among those beginning to release people jailed on minor charges. An inmate at its Rikers Island facility tested positive this week.

Public health experts are urging jails and prisons to take steps to reduce their incarcerated populations as coronavirus risks continue to grow.

Like Cruise Ships

Dr. Anne Spaulding heads Emory University’s Center for the Health of Incarcerated Persons.

“There is a tendency for local health departments to say: ‘Oh, there’s that prison down the road, there’s that jail down the road – however they’ve got a medical staff that’s privatized; therefore we don’t need to do anything’,” Spaulding said.

“That’s equivalent to saying ‘Oh, there’s a cruise ship that’s just pulled into port, but there’s a doctor or nurse on board, and therefore we don’t even need to think about what could be going on in that cruise ship.’”

Almost all Georgia’s county jails use private health providers, according to reporting by the Macon Telegraph.

Spaulding has worked on educational material for pandemic preparedness and said she’s been working on getting it to state and local health officials across the country.

“Some of what we’re dealing with is the unknown. That’s what makes things challenging,” she said.

“People who work in jails and prisons, there is a science to how we do our work. And there’s a lot of sharing of best practices among colleagues, and we are working on trying to learn from each others’ guidelines and protocols.”

She said most jails have plans for various phases of outbreaks that lay out how best to isolate symptomatic inmates or those with confirmed coronavirus cases.

Advocates: Review, Release, Reduce Arrests

Local prisoner advocacy groups, including the Southern Center for Human Rights, have increasingly called for broad reviews and releases of people incarcerated on non-violent charges.

Last week, Roberta Meyers Douglas, with the group Legal Action Center, sent Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office a list of recommendations aimed at decreasing local jail populations.

The group is asking law enforcement to stop booking new people into jail for violations that aren’t immediate public safety threats.

“They shouldn’t be putting people in harm’s way, and crowding people into jail cells is never going to be the answer. We’ll all pay the price for that,” said Douglas, who is working on getting the recommendations to every county in the state.

She’s especially concerned about people living with HIV or others with compromised immune systems.

Neither Douglas nor WABE have received a response from the mayor’s office, but the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement, “In consideration of the potential to spread the virus among jail employees and inmates, officers are being encouraged – in limited circumstances in which there is no risk to the public – to provide some minor offenders with a copy of charges, rather than taking them to either the Fulton County or City of Atlanta jail.”

DeKalb County’s State Court issued an order on Wednesday to release some misdemeanor offenders with the exception of family violence or other violent charges.

Check back for updates to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Roberta Meyers Douglas’s name.