By Max Blau
Corrections officials are struggling to combat the rising spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails throughout the state. The disease has led to one death, and more than two dozen other people are either known to be infected or showing potential symptoms.
Georgia Health News has learned that three people at the federal penitentiary in southeast Atlanta have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Two are inmates, and one is a staff member.
Twenty people incarcerated at two medium-security state prisons – Lee State Prison in Leesburg and Phillips State Prison in Buford – have tested positive for the positive or displayed symptoms of COVID-19.
One man from Lee State Prison, who had been hospitalized for more than a week, died Thursday at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in nearby Albany. The man has since been identified as Anthony Cheek, 49. He was one of the 64 people statewide who had died from the virus as of noon Friday.
“He had two more years and he was going to come home. He was looking forward to it,” his mother, Joyce Cheek, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “He was gonna be a diesel auto mechanic.”
The coronavirus diagnoses are happening inside facilities that face a unique problem in the effort to contain COVID-19.
Jails and prisons not only keep people in close quarters — at a time when social distancing is being recommended to reduce the spread of infection — but they also house some of the nation’s sickest and most vulnerable individuals. While some officials from California to South Carolina have taken proactive measures to protect people behind bars, including releasing some inmates early, other states like Georgia have only taken limited steps, including eliminating medical co-pays and restricting visitors, according to the Prison Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group.
In addition to Cheek, five more inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Lee State Prison, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. Another person has been hospitalized and is awaiting tests results.
Beyond that, 13 more people incarcerated at Lee State Prison are in medical isolation at the prison for “exhibiting flu-like symptoms.” Only two of those people have been tested for COVID-19, and the results are pending.
Four employees at Lee State Prison have also tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections.
Corrections officials have just confirmed the first verified coronavirus case at Phillips State Prison. The person who has tested positive is “asymptomatic” and is being housed in medical isolation at the prison.
A corrections spokesperson said in a statement that people at both prisons “continue to have access to medical care, showers, meals and hygiene-related products,” and that staff are screening inmates for additional symptoms.
One person incarcerated at Phillips State Prison, who asked to be anonymous due to fear of retribution, told GHN on Friday that healthy inmates had been sent to bunk down in the prison gym, where there is limited access to showers or phones. A corrections spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about that claim.
Relatives of some state prisoners submitted questions for Thursday night’s televised town hall meeting held by Gov. Brian Kemp, but those questions were not asked by the moderators.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat who represents a portion of Atlanta and its northwestern suburbs, told GHN that she has concerns about the state response to COVID-19.
“It’s terrifying,” she said. “You have a population in close proximity to each other, and you have a highly contagious virus we know is more contagious than the flu. What is the plan here? Is the Georgia Department of Corrections following proper practices in quarantining and isolating people who have tested positive?”
Lauren Bricks, co-founder of Ipsum Diagnostics, told GHN that her Sandy Springs-based company would soon process swabs for people tested inside some state prisons. The company will help increase the state prison system’s testing capacity, she said.
“You don’t have the luxury to [widely] isolate people in prisons due to COVID-19,” Bricks said. “You have to think about the employees who are exposed like a front-line worker at a hospital.”
At the local level, some jail inmates – including at least five at the Fulton County Jail – have tested positive for COVID-19. Some sheriffs have begun releasing people early from their jails, while others have not. At the Hall County Jail, spokesperson Derreck Booth told GHN that the sheriff’s office has released about 200 people, some ahead of schedule in an effort to create more social distancing inside the facility.
“While the effort helps prevent the spread of the virus to jail and court personnel, it’s also out of concern for the health of inmates who must remain in custody,” he said.
Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories, which have recently appeared in Atlanta magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.