DOC Employee Contracts COVID-19 Amid Calls for Prison Depopulation

By Christian Boone | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | March 18, 2020

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A Georgia Department of Corrections employee has tested positive for coronavirus -- the first confirmed case within any of the state’s 34 prisons.

Prison officials declined to say at which prison the employee worked.

Experts say the virus could wreak havoc inside Georgia’s massive detention facilities, which were not designed with social distancing in mind. Additionally, many prisoners are in poor health due to their sedentary lifestyles and harmful habits.

Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding said the virus could spread rapidly once inside prison walls.

“What happened on the Diamond Princess should be a cautionary tale for what could happen inside prisons,” Spaulding said. More than 700 passengers and crew members on the cruise ship ultimately tested positive for the virus.

So far, no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the DOC. It’s unclear if any have been tested.

“They are playing Russian roulette with everyone's lives,” said Kimberly Smith, whose husband is an inmate at Montgomery State Prison.

She said the DOC should immediately reveal where the employee worked.

The ACLU has called on the DOC and local jails to release low-level offenders and those incarcerated awaiting trial because they could not afford cash bail.

"People in custody cannot protect themselves,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “This situation makes it even more urgent for 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.”

The department hasn’t said whether the employee had any contact with the prison population.

“We can confirm the individual last reported to work Thursday, March 12th, however, because of security and HIPAA restrictions, the GDC will not be releasing the name of the individual or any additional details at this time,” the DOC said in a press release.

The agency has enacted a number of security measures since last week, banning all outside visitors, including attorneys.

The ACLU, in an open letter published on its website, said much more needs to be done. They called on Gov. Brian Kemp to commute anyone whose sentence ends in the next year currently being held on a “technical supervision violation,” and anyone identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “particularly vulnerable” whose sentence concludes in the next two years.

Spaulding said lowering the prison population could slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Lowering the prison population safety would be a great thing,” Spaulding said.

On the local front, the ACLU is urging sheriffs to “assess those individuals who are detained and incarcerated and maximize the number of people who can be immediately released, including people who would be released within the next sixty days.

About 20.77 percent of incarcerated individuals in Georgia are age 50 and older, a population most vulnerable to the virus.

“The urgency of deliberate and thoughtful action is imperative,” Young wrote.