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Prisoners Inside Georgia’s Clayton County Jail Describe Desperate Efforts To Avoid COVID-19

They shared their stories as part of a lawsuit seeking urgent changes to protect prisoners. One prisoner wrote that a jail officer denied his request for a mask, so he tied old underwear around his face.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Prisoners at the jail in Clayton County, Georgia, say they were told to use underwear, T-shirts, towels, and sheets as makeshift masks because they were not provided with their own. Masks are one of several measures the sheriff, Victor Hill, failed to introduce to protect detainees from COVID-19, alleges a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of all of the jail’s detainees. 

In that lawsuit, filed last month by the Southern Center for Human Rights, 12 former and current prisoners described conditions that made social distancing and disinfection impossible and said their requests for medical help had gone ignored. They are urging a federal judge to order Hill to implement changes that follow guidelines for guarding against the spread of coronavirus. As of July 9, at least 72 detainees and 13 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus, according to the filing. 

“Everyone working at or living in the Clayton County Jail is now at risk of serious illness, or even death for those who are most medically vulnerable,” Dr. Fred Rottnek, a former medical director of the St. Louis County Jail in Missouri, wrote in a declaration accompanying the lawsuit. 

The sheriff’s office has denied a surge in COVID-19 cases at the jail. “There is no outbreak of COVID-19 in our facility,” Alan Parker, Hill’s legal adviser, wrote in a message on the communications platform Nixle on July 2. “The media has falsely exaggerated the facts to suit their story. … I have reviewed the allegations in the lawsuit, and we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit in a court of law, not in the press.”

Prior to the statement, the Georgia Department of Public Health had confirmed at least 32 cases in the facility. The jail in the metropolitan region of Atlanta, which was built to house a little more than 1,900 people, is at nearly 100 percent capacity, according to the filing. 

In a response filed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Hill argued that the lawsuit “mirrors complaints filed across the country as a wholesale attack on jails and prisons.” 

As part of the lawsuit, prisoners wrote affidavits detailing their experiences at the jail. Rhonda Jones, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hepatitis C, said she is housed in a cell with two other people, though her cell has two bunks. She said she sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor, which is often covered by water that has leaked from the toilet. Jones said she goes to the medical unit three times per week to get her blood drawn and blood pressure checked. During that time, she waits in a crowded cage with about 20 other women, only some of whom are wearing masks, she wrote in a declaration.  She attempted to file a grievance about the lack of protections against coronavirus but said an automated kiosk told her that she had reached her grievance limit. “I am scared that I could get sick and die from coronavirus in this jail,” she wrote.

A 72-year-old former prisoner, Randolph Mitchell, said he bought a homemade mask from another prisoner in exchange for two soup packets. In May, he said he began to get headaches, an upset stomach, and shortness of breath. When he went to go see a nurse, he said that 12 to 13 people were sitting side by side in the waiting area. Later, he said he asked a nurse to be tested for COVID-19 but was told that “they do not test inmates.” 

Another prisoner wrote that he exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 three days after being placed in a cell with a symptomatic man. Once he received a test, he waited for his results for more than two weeks and in that time, a third sick man was moved into his cell. That man was later confirmed to have tested positive for the disease.

Prisoners also said they were not given proper cleaning supplies and instead forced to use a dirty mop to clean their cells once or twice a month. Every week, each person was given one four-ounce bottle of soap for showers, washing, and cleaning their cells, they said. Masks were not guaranteed, either. For the first three months of the pandemic, prisoners say most people were not given masks and used whatever they had lying around in their cells. “I recently asked an officer for a mask to protect me from the coronavirus,” wrote one man. “The officer said no. So I tie a scrap of old, ripped underwear around my face as a makeshift mask.” 

More people have been provided with masks as a result of the litigation, but the lawsuit alleges that not everyone has been given one and prisoners do not have a way to clean them. 

To remedy the problem, attorneys are asking the judge to order Hill to devise a plan for guarding against and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in the jail. That proposal would be submitted to the Georgia Department of Health for approval. And because they are alleging that the jail has not taken the proper precautions to stop an outbreak, attorneys are asking the court to determine if people who are vulnerable, such as the elderly, sick, or those with disabilities, must be released or transferred to another jail. 

The request echoes calls from advocates throughout the country for officials to release prisoners to protect them and the community from COVID-19. Though opponents have argued that releasing prisoners would put people in danger, a July report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that crime decreased in counties whose jails had reduced their populations between February and the end of April. 

Throughout the pandemic, jails have shown to be a hotspot for the disease. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, officials had reduced its jail population by more than 1,500 people early in the pandemic in part by releasing people detained on nonviolent charges. But the population has since risen back to pre-pandemic numbers as close to 1,000 people held in the jail have tested positive for coronavirus. At the Chattooga County jail in Georgia, nearly all 15 employees are either COVID-19 positive or displaying symptoms. 

Speaking about Clayton County, Sarah Geraghty, senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told The Appeal, “For certain people, the current conditions at the jail pose such a high risk that transfer or release is the only solution to protect those people from a risk of serious illness or death.” 

“People in this jail are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, members of the community,” she added, “and none were sentenced to die of an infectious disease inside this jail.”