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By Joshua Sharpe | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | March 27, 2020

The outbreak of coronavirus at Lee State Prison in southwest Georgia has worsened as staff members and more inmates test positive, officials announced Friday.

One inmate, Anthony Cheek, 49, died Thursday night at a local hospital, where he’d been since mid-March, Lee County Coroner Hill Mackey confirmed. Two of the five other inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are hospitalized. One of the four staff members who tested positive is hospitalized, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The other three positive inmates from Lee State are quarantined in “medical isolation” at the prison. The three positive Lee State employees are at home.

Lee State Prison is a 762-unit medium-level detention center in southwest Georgia’s Lee County, which is near Albany, a hot spot in Georgia for the coronavirus. The spread in Albany, and potentially into Lee County, may be linked to two funerals held about a month ago at an Albany funeral home.

Cheek’s death led some inmate health advocates to renew calls for some inmates to be released to limit the potential damage of outbreaks.

“This is the very reason that we are asking state and local officials to implement procedures to protect all people who are in our prisons and jails from being exposed to and contracting the COVID-19 virus,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said after Cheek’s death. “Individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety or are incarcerated awaiting trial because of an inability to pay cash bail should be released. Putting people at risk by keeping them in jail beyond what is necessary for public safety poses a far-reaching health threat to the people incarcerated, the staff, and the greater community.”

“Given their close confines, prisons are public health powder kegs on a good day,” Sara Tononchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said prisons are “powder kegs” for infectious diseases because of the close confines. “Now that the virus has gotten a foothold in Georgia’s prisons,” she said, “there is even more risk for incarcerated people of widespread infection and more deaths.”

Gov. Brian Kemp has declined to support for any such releases. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole has said it is still making release decisions based on public safety and not changing because of coronavirus.