Georgia State Prison in Reidsville
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Reports of poor conditions and treatment of inmates inside Georgia State Prison in Reidsvile and several other facilities is a humanitarian crisis according to the Southern Center for Human Rights. The organization and some legislators are calling for investigations into Georgia's prison system as suicide rates rise and recent large-scale riots have broken out at some prisons.
Credit: Judson McCranie/Creative Commons

Former Valdosta State Prison inmate Matthew Harkins says a prison nurse sent him back to his dorm in mid-July after diagnosing his dry cough and stuffy nose as allergies. As the days went by and his cough worsened, he got diarrhea and began experiencing chills, which finally led to him getting tested for COVID-19.

For several weeks, the 43-year-old from Helen said prison staff only allowed him to take a few showers and that he received little medical care while he remained alone in a cell after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Harkins is among the current and former state prison inmates, civil rights organizations, and other inmate rights advocates accusing the Georgia Department of Corrections of not providing proper protections. 

Reports of poor conditions and treatment of inmates inside some of Georgia’s prisons is a humanitarian crisis according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which calls for a Department of Justice investigation as suicide rates rise and recent large-scale riots have broken out.

Inmates are locked in cells for days on end and sick inmates are not getting adequate care while quarantined, the inmate advocates allege. 

Harkins says that treatment sends the wrong message to Valdosta inmates who witnessed prison staff cracking jokes, rarely wearing masks, and downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus until a dozen staff members tested positive in early July. 

Harkins ended up in Valdosta prison this spring after a probation violation for failing to report for a drug test as part of his sentence for battery and false imprisonment convictions. He is now in a drug treatment program in Savannah.

Former Valdosta State Prison inmate Matthew Harkins.
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Former Valdosta State Prison inmate Matthew Harkins.
Credit: Hau Pham/Contributed

“They refused me mental health treatment while I was there, which is a big deal to me because I have anxiety problems and depression,” Harkins said about his Valdosta prison experience. “Just being stuck in that cell by myself to deal for that period of time was causing some trauma for me.”

“Even though there were inmates who were obviously sick, some of them said that they would just rather wait it out in a dorm rather than be thrown into a cell where there’s total isolation,” Harkins said. “At least in the dorm, they’ll be able to talk to their loved ones so they can know what’s going on.”

Since March when the coronavirus made its public debut in Georgia, more than 1,870 state prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, with 63 reported deaths. About 900 Georgia prison staffers also contracted the viral infection that’s so far killed two corrections employees as of Monday, according to the department’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The human rights center’s accusations spurred a letter from state Rep. Josh McLaurin and 16 other members of the Georgia House Democratic Caucus to request that state Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward order an investigation. 

The Atlanta-based nonprofit mentioned extensive problems, some dating back to 2019, caused in part by severe understaffing at Georgia State Prison, Macon State Prison and Ware State Prison.

“Unfortunately, I think some people in society are willing to let the problems of prisoners be out of sight, out of mind,” said McLaurin of Sandy Springs. 

“I have no doubt that the pandemic is complicating the Department of Corrections’ attempt to maintain order in its prisons, but the problem is that the Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment does not leave any wiggle room for whether or not prisons have adequate resources.”

The corrections department did not respond to several requests for comment by email and phone over more than a week from the Georgia Recorder.

Ward, however, did send a letter to McLaurin saying the department would not respond to specific allegations from the Southern Center citing potential litigation. 

Ward wrote that his department is “committed to providing safe and secure facilities” and that it investigates all allegations and incidents.

Inmates support group offer a sounding board

Judy Godfrey says her family frequently called up to the Pulaski State Prison pressing for her daughter to get tested after she developed a cough and dealt with a loss of taste and smell this summer.

It took more than a week to get tested because her daughter didn’t have a temperature at the time. 

Godfrey asked that her daughter, who has recovered from COVID-19 and is back living in a quarantined dorm, not have her name published for fear of retaliation.

“My daughter has congestive heart failure so that’s why we really were adamant about getting her tested because she was doubly at risk,” she said.

Susan Sparks Burns, started the Facebook group “They Have No Voice” in 2019 to spread the word about inmates’ experiences behind bars.

Lately, that page features harrowing stories about the fear many inmates and their family members harbor over the prison system’s handling of a virus that can quickly spread within the confines of detention centers.

“This COVID pandemic has resulted in gross understaffing and an understaffed prison is a dangerous place,” Burns said.

She’s pushing for the state prisons to provide better hygienic and cleaning supplies to inmates. The department must be more transparent and reduce the inmate population by 25% to offer more flexibility for quarantining, she added.

Since March, the inmate population in Georgia’s prisons and other DOC facilities have dipped by about 11%, from 55,025 to currently about 49,000, according to figures from the corrections department. About half of Georgia’s prison population is African American, one the groups most vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease.

A significant part of the decline resulted from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles granting early releases on non-violent offenders in April and May in an effort to get more inmates out of jail while also taking into account the public’s safety.

During that two-month window the parole board released 2,550 inmates, which included granting early releases for 918 low-level offenders who were within six months of the end of their sentences. 

Since then, the board is back to letting out the roughly 850 inmates it does on in an average month, spokesman Steve Hayes said. 

New cases crop up

As Georgia’s bout with coronavirus infections improved since the summer, Georgia’s prisons continued to record spikes as when a recent data dump to the state health department revealed 145 new documented cases at Wheeler Correctional Facility.

Wheeler, which now has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases of any prison in the correctional system, is operated by CoreCivic, which has already seen two of the largest prison outbreaks in the country at prisons in Tennessee.

It also contracts with the state correction department to run Coffee Correctional in Coffee County, which has had the most cases in the state’s system, and four other Georgia correctional facilities.

A spokesman for CoreCivic said it closely followed the COVID mitigation plan and public health authorities’ guidance even before the first reported infections at its detention centers.

Those protocols include encouraging inmates and staff to socially distance themselves as much as possible, promote handwashing and other hygienic practices, and have medical staff determine when new inmates arrive if they are infected or considered high-risk. All employees are also screened for symptoms when they enter a facility. 

“We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities,” CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.