Families Advocate for State to Release More Inmates to Contain Pandemic

By Stanley Dunlap | Georgia Recorder | April 28, 2020

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Marla Laminack checks the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website each evening to track the number of COVID-19 cases in the prison where her elderly father is an inmate.

The Winder resident is among the family members of prisoners feeling the anxiety of having loved ones inside the prison system as the COVID-19 virus spreads.

Laminack’s father, 81-year-old Guy Swanner, represents the 62 years and older prisoners that the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and Legal Action Center say should be considered for early release because of the pandemic.

Swanner, who is four years into serving a 20-year sentence at Rutledge State Prison in Columbus for aggravated assault, also has underlying health conditions — diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease that led to quintuple bypass surgery — making him more vulnerable to the virus.

Laminack speaks with her father over the phone as often as possible, but when the lines are too long it’s not safe for him to wait.

“It’s scary to think about this,” the 56-year-old paralegal said. “First off, prisons are not good about calling people if something happens to their loved ones. I guess they’re adults and they don’t have to do that. You may not hear from these people until they call and say, ‘Oh, your dad died. Come get his body.’ Fortunately, I have a really good rapport with the (Rutledge warden).”

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles should expand the types of inmates under consideration for early release to include Swanner and all other inmates above the age of 62, ACLU attorney Kosha Tucker said.

The board announced in late March that it was considering an initial release of about 200 nonviolent offenders who were scheduled to get out of prison within the next 180 days. The board could grant those releases by the end of April.

The ACLU is hearing from family members of inmates concerned about a lack of social distancing in some prisons and other issues that make the older inmates vulnerable to contacting the diseases, Tucker said.

In March, 3,400 of the state’s 54,723 prisoners were 60 years or older.

“The ACLU is concerned that prisons and jails aren’t able to abide by all of the guidelines of the CDC in limiting the outbreak of COVID-19 in these facilities,” Tucker said.

The board typically releases 800 paroles each month.

“The board will continue to use its constitutional authority to make clemency release decisions in the interest of public safety which will provide the Department of Corrections additional flexibility as it manages the inmate population in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” board spokesman Steve Hayes said.

Since April 1, the number of positive cases within the Georgia Department of Corrections Facilities has jumped from 23 to 301. Overall, six prisoners and one employee have died from the virus, according to the Department of Corrections.

Following the most recent inmate deaths — a 68-year-old and 44-year-old with previous health complications on April 22 — the corrections department said it continues working with the Department of Public Health “to ensure appropriate protocols and guidelines are followed while managing the safety and welfare of our staff and offender population.”

Another advocacy effort is pushing federal legislation to stem the flow of prison and jail inmates and ensure they get adequate care and services. It is being backed by groups like the Legal Action Center, a non-profit law and policy organization.

The legislation would provide grants to states and local governments that implement plans to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by lowering the inmate population by at least 20% through the release of inmates who are 50 or older and have health risks.

The grants could be used to provide health care services or for community programs that support the former inmates, said Roberta Meyers, director of state strategy and reentry for the non-profit law for Legal Action Center.

The pandemic is also forcing some within the judicial and criminal justice system to re-examine how they treat inmates, Meyers said.

“In a way, it’s almost a life and death situation,” she said. “It’s a different view that I see the system is now needing to take for each individual that it comes in contact with because they know their decisions could have some ramifications. Their view of risk is changing because of the public health connection to their decisions.”

Marla Laminack, right, with her father Guy Swanner, an 81-year-old state prison inmate. She is pushing for her father to be included among the hundreds of prisoners the paroles board could release from prison in a few days to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Shane Hinkson