Coalition Demands Urgent Meeting with GA’s Governor; urges local action to save lives

The Georgia Coalition 2 Save Lives, which the Southern Center is proud to be a member of, has requested a meeting with Gov. Kemp to discuss ideas to promote health and safety, and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our state.

There is an on-going need for proactive local action to stem this pandemic, particularly because the pandemic has not impacted all communities equally.

Recent data from the CDC shows that 83% of Georgians hospitalized with the coronavirus are Black. This troubling statistic “merits tailoring and targeting life-saving measures to communities of color, the elderly, and within Georgia’s extremely vulnerable prison populations, whose infection and death numbers are increasing rapidly.” The Coalition calls for an “ethical and moral response plan that addresses both the health and economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis,” including input from Black community and political leaders.

Gov. Kemp’s orders allowed the reopening of certain businesses, such as nail salons and bowling alleys, on April 24, added dine-in restaurants and movie theaters April 27, and lifting a state-wide shelter-in-place order on May 1, even after renewing the Public Health State of Emergency on April 30. The lack of uniform guidance has led to widespread gathering in public spaces with little observance of social distancing or masking recommendations.

“All of us are alarmed by the images we see of people interacting in public without adhering to safety measures,” the letter stated. “This poses a risk not only to their own health, but also the health of the general public, including essential workers, employees of newly reopened businesses and people in vulnerable and rural communities.”

Federal guidelines informed by public health experts recommend sheltering in place until 14 days after there has been a downward trend in new cases. But in the absence of such an order, combined with the current lack of access to COVID-19 and antibody testing and contact tracing, there are certain practical and proactive steps which can and should be taken to protect the public. These include mandated supply and distribution of personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizers in public spaces and businesses, along with official recommendations that people wear masks whenever they leave their homes. 

GC2SL has also reached out to local city and county governments, volunteering time, support, and consultation, including a model local ordinance calling for the widespread use of face masks that they can use in their own efforts to protect their communities. The coalition plans to meet with local government leaders today.

Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, SCHR Sends Letters to Department of Juvenile Justice; Judges

In the letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice, SCHR urges DJJ to adopt a plan for protecting young people in its custody from COVID-19. That includes reducing the number of youth in restrictive custody, and mitigating harm for those who cannot be released during this rapidly escalating crisis.

2020.04.10-SCHR-Letter-to-DJJ

In the letter to 500+ state and municipal court judges, SCHR urges judges to take the most critically important step possible at the moment: to reduce the jail population in their jurisdictions by reducing jail admissions and by releasing as many people as possible, consistent with public safety.

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COVID-19 Behind Bars: A Handbook for Incarcerated People

In prisons and jails characterized by unsanitary conditions and inadequate healthcare, COVID-19 represents an unprecedented threat. While hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed and under-equipped to handle the deadly coronavirus in the free world, prospects for Georgia’s men and women behind bars are unspeakably grim. 3,500 of them are over 60 years old. 700 are over 70. And over a thousand more have chronic health issues that exponentially increase the odds that they will die if infected. Now that the virus has taken hold in Georgia’s prison system, the question has become when, not if.  

 
Most CDC recommendations are impossible for people in prisons and jails to follow. Social distancing, for example, is not an option in housing units where people are closely confined together in tiny cells, or in open dorms where hundreds of bunks are spaced, at times, a mere 3 feet apart. People routinely move in large groups to meals, details, and medical appointments. Alcohol-based sanitizers are considered contraband, and cleaning supplies are distributed sparingly. Even soap is in short supply for those who can’t afford to buy it from the commissary.   

 
Many people in prison are completely cut off from contact with the outside world. With visitation halted, and especially for those in solitary confinement with no hope of catching the TV news, people rely on prison staff for information. But the threat of infection has been routinely minimized, perhaps to avoid mass panic. When the Department of Corrections cannot protect people in their care, people must have the information they need to care for themselves and each other. 

 
SCHR has created a handbook to inform people in prisons and jails about COVID-19. This includes information from the CDC about symptoms and transmission, measures they may be able to take to protect their own health and those most vulnerable in their communities, and how to respond and advocate for themselves when these protections are not made possible. Included are letters sent from SCHR to the GDC, Board of Pardons and Paroles, and all 159 county Sheriffs, urging them to take immediate action to save lives, as well as the actions the GDC says it is taking, and a questionnaire to help us track this response as it happens. 

 
Fear and sadness have taken grip even in places where the virus has not yet spread. People in prison feel more powerless than ever, and are as concerned about us as we are about them. Free phone calls, one per person per week, have been made available, as well as two Jpay “stamps.”  

Share these tips with your loved one on your next phone call or Jpay message: 

  • Co-pays for medical services related to COVID-19 (and flu-like) symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, are currently waived. People do not have to pay to be seen at medical for these symptoms. If you are charged, you can appeal the charges by submitting a “Concerns and Complaints” form or a handwritten note within five days. Medical co-pays cannot be appealed using the grievance procedure. 
  • Request distance when moving in groups. If you must sit near others, leave a seat between you if possible. CDC guidelines for social distancing recommend keeping 6 feet of space between individuals. If you share a cell, sleep head to toe.  
  • Practice good hygiene and cough etiquette: cough into a tissue or your elbow, throw out tissues after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose and wash your hands thoroughly. Avoid touching your nose, mouth and face. Wash hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds. 
  • Request that food service, medical and pill call staff wear protective gear including masks and gloves. During temperature checks, be sure the staff is using no-touch thermometers or changing protective equipment and gloves between each person. 
  • Do not share drinking cups, dishes, eating utensils, towels or bedding with others.  
  • Routinely clean all high-touch surfaces, including phones, remote controls, counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, keyboards, and tablets. 
  • Seek medical attention right away if you notice the following warning signs: Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent chest pain or pressure, sudden confusion or difficulty to arouse, or bluish lips or face. 

People at high risk for more severe illness include:  

  • People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma,  
  • People over 65 (note this number might be lower, around 50, in prison), and 
  • People of any age with impaired immune systems (including those being treated for cancer, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, organ or bone marrow transplants, prolonged corticosteroids or other immune-compromising medications, severe obesity, renal failure, heart disease with complications, liver disease or other immune deficiencies).  

File a Grievance: If you feel that your health or safety is threatened, or that policies related to COVID-19 are not being followed, please follow the grievance procedure of the facility where you live.  

The entire handbook is available for you to print and mail, or share with those who have web access. In addition to the information, there is a questionnaire that can help us keep track of COVID-19 related developments inside your facilities. 

Georgia Justice Reform Partnership Sends Letter to Georgia DOC; Board of Pardons and Paroles Urging Immediate Action in light of COVID-19

The Georgia Justice Reform Partnership (GJRP) is a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals committed to criminal justice reform in Georgia. In the letter, sent on April 2, the GJRP urges the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to follow the lead of other states that are taking unprecedented actions aimed at protecting the lives, health and well-being of everyone who is incarcerated or works in penal institutions, including impacted families. The letter contains recommendations for both agencies.

GJRP-Request-for-immediate-action-to-address-COVID-19-in-Georgias-Prison-system

Share the letter here.

SCHR Sends Follow-Up Letter to Georgia Department of Corrections; Board of Pardons and Parole

This morning, SCHR sent a follow-up letter to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole (GBPP). The first letter — sent on March 13th — asked the GDC and the GBPP to implement a number of measures to reduce virus transmission and potential loss of life, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Comply with CDC, Georgia Department of Public Health, and NCCHC Guidelines;
  • Eliminate co-pays; ensure access to soap, tissue, cleaning/sanitizing products, and clean laundry:
  • Ensure transparency in communications with family members and the public;
  • Implement medical quarantine where appropriate; implement an emergency staffing plan;
  • Create a list of people to prioritize for possible release; review, on an expedited basis, the cases of elderly and infirm prisoners, in order to identify who among them could be released, consistent with public safety.
2020.03.30-Follow-Up-Letter-to-GDC-and-GBPP

When the initial letter was sent, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any Georgia prisons, jails, or transitional centers. Statewide, there were 42 confirmed cases. As of the evening of Sunday, March 29, the state of Georgia has over 2,600 confirmed cases (multiple within its prisons and jails) and at least 83 deaths — including an incarcerated person at Lee State Prison.

SCHR is also worried about people living in Transitional Centers. As of March 1, 2020, there are 2,280 people in Transitional Centers (TCs), and at least 91 are over the age of 60. These people are at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of the work release requirement, which requires them to work in communities outside of the transitional centers. Worse, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in TCs is higher than in other GDC facilities because many participants are returning from potentially infected communities to live with hundreds of others who could have been exposed to the virus in closely confined spaces. Moreover, people in these programs must use public transportation in order to get to work, and work in closely confined spaces such as poultry plants and warehouses.

SCHR is urging the Parole Board to consider the immediate release of people held at the fifteen TCs in a manner consistent with the health and safety of Georgia communities. People over the age of 60, those with underlying health conditions, and those who have completed most of the program requirements should be considered for immediate release, and the Parole Board should provide a release date.

Read the letter above, or here.

SCHR Sends Public Letter to all 159 Georgia Sheriffs Regarding the Potential Spread of COVID-19 to People in Georgia Jails

On March 23, 2020, the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a public letter to all 159 sheriffs in Georgia regarding the anticipated spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) to people incarcerated in jails. SCHR is deeply concerned that if COVID-19 gains a foothold in Georgia’s jails, there is a risk of widespread infection and death.

The letter includes recommendations to reduce jail admissions, release certain people from custody, and improve conditions in local jails to mitigate the risk of exposure, infection, and spread.

2020.03.24-Letter-to-GA-Sheriffs.FINAL_

Friends of Shauntrice Murry Push for her Immediate Release

We were all incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison with Shauntrice Murry. We know that she has done a significant amount of time, and has been a help, comforter and mentor to many. She deserves to see her family before she dies. We are calling for her immediate release. But our voices won’t matter to the parole board. We need your help.

Shauntrice has days left to live. Her cancer — diagnosed in 2019 — is aggressive and fast-growing, and treatment is no longer working. Like everyone, Shauntrice wants the opportunity to die with dignity, surrounded by the people that she loves. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation in all Georgia prisons has been suspended. That means that Shauntrice’s family cannot see her while she remains incarcerated. 

Someone suffering from a terminal illness — especially at a time when a global pandemic is prohibiting visitation — should be released. To keep Shauntrice in a cage, where she would die in isolation, is cruel beyond measure and would achieve nothing but suffering – both for Shauntrice and her family. 

We, too, did our time in the state prison system. But unlike Shauntrice, we were able to return to our loved ones. She served the last 12 years of her life in prison. She does not deserve to die there.

Tell the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that it should do everything in its power to release Shauntrice immediately

Call the board: (404) 656-4661
Email the board: [email protected]pap.ga.gov

Suggested script: “I am asking the Board of Pardons and Paroles to do everything in its power to facilitate the release of Shauntrice Murry, who has terminal cancer and likely has just days left to live. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shauntrice’s family is no longer permitted visit her in prison. It would be unspeakably cruel to keep her in prison to die alone in isolation, without getting the chance to say goodbye to those she loves. Please release her and allow her to die with dignity surrounded by family.”

Testimonials to Shauntrice Murry, from women who were formerly incarcerated with her:

She was very thin by the time I met her. I remember her telling me she was sick. If I was hungry… she helped me out. She was in pain I do believe, but tried not showing it too much. I was only in dorm a few months but she made an impact on me…Just a positive influence. I am not from Georgia, I was really nervous. She always had something positive to say to me. She never let me go hungry and looked out for me. Always kind. –Alex Holzmiller

She was always so positive and uplifting. She shines from the inside. Like, her soul shines. Anytime I was down or dark, she had a positive word. —Katie Shields

I met her when I broke my foot and she was the sweetest person.  I had to stay in medical for a few days and she would check on me. She deserves to be home with her family…I was scared to be in there, and she was very nice to me. — Chanda Gilreath

She made a major, major impact on my life. I called her Auntie. She kept me out of sooo much trouble, talked me out of suicide attempts and she helped me get back in touch with God. We had so many laughs, so many serious talks about life. She not only became my friend she became part of my family. There was never a dull moment with Tricie Murry (Auntie). It was always loud laughs and jokes being told to pass our days. And she knows how to cook! She made me some meals that will leave a taste in my mouth for a lifetime. I love her so much and just wish that the Board can see that everyone makes mistakes but no one deserves to die that way. — Courtney Chestnut

Knowing Shauntrice Murry has really been a great thing.  I’m 50 years old and never knew what a true friend was until I met Ms. Murry. When I got to LASP I was lost, confused, depressed, cause of the sentence I had just received.  Another inmate introduced me to her and told me she would be good to talk to.  At first things were bumpy with her cause she didn’t like to talk but making small talk was better than anything.  Then we started doing things together such as cooking, playing spades, and going to groups.  We practically did everything together.  After 8 ½ years I have seen a tremendous change in Ms. Murry, and she is caring and very helpful.  If I had the opportunity to talk to the Board I would beg them to allow Ms. Murry to go home and be in comfort for her remaining days — that way I could go to Macon and help see about her.  I have been here from the beginning and I will be there until the end.  I love this lady like my very own sister! — Freida Davis

Nonessential Arrests by the Atlanta Police Department Increase Risk of Covid-19 Transmission

Today, a group of attorneys, health care professionals, and community-based organizations sent a letter to Chief Erika Shields of the Atlanta Police Department, asking that she immediately instruct all APD officers to cease endangering the larger community and furthering the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus by making non-essential arrests and exposing citizens and officers alike to multiple points of contact, each of which is a potential point of transmission.

The booking sheet for the Atlanta City Detention Center, over a 24-hour period of March 18th, reveals that in the midst of a pandemic, APD is utilizing its significant resources to arrest people for things such as Urban Camping, Drinking in Public, and Possession of Marijuana – charges which Chief Shields has publicly declared to be deprioritized, even in non-crisis times.

COVID-19_Expert_Community_Letter_to_APD_3-20-20

For each arrest, there are 20 -70 points of contact between the person being arrested and other people, including city personnel. These include but are not limited to:

· the officer making the arrest and their partner;

· booking and intake officers;

· bail security and maintenance personnel;

· Municipal Court personnel, prosecutors and public defenders that must participate in the adjudication process; and

· every other person in the “holding cell” who has been non-essentially arrested.

The letter urges Chief Shields to impose penalties on officers who continue to critically endanger public health by making non-essential arrests. Officers should be directed to use many alternatives at their disposal including de-escalation, issuance of citation, and diversion. 

“Every nonessential arrest made by APD is a threat to our collective public safety and health. Chief Shields has an opportunity to redefine policing in times of crisis. It is imperative that her directives require officers to play a leading role in flattening the curve in the City of Atlanta and beyond,” said Tiffany Roberts, Movement Building Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Read the letter here.

Stronger Together: Share Your Experiences with Georgia Courts and Jails with SCHR

We hope that you are as well as is possible in these tumultuous times. We need your help today as we learn about what is happening right now in Georgia’s courts and jails.

As you may know, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton announced a statewide Judicial Emergency last Saturday. The order – which followed Governor Kemp’s declaration of a State of Emergency – ordered courts and clerk’s offices to “suspend all but essential court functions” amid growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Courts should continue to address issues “necessary to protect health, safety and liberty of individuals,” the order said, but otherwise limit operations. To the extent possible, court proceedings should be completed with minimal risk of exposure (e.g. the use of video conferencing.) Current best practices for jails should be to de-prioritize pretrial detention and quality of life arrests, and immediately release any elderly and infirm people.

SCHR is deeply concerned about the role that courts and jails will play in furthering the spread of COVID-19, both to incarcerated people and the general public. To that end, we would like to give the Georgia public an opportunity to share information about their experiences with courts and jails amidst the pandemic.

Please use this survey to share information about judges who are not complying with Justice Melton’s order.

Please use this survey to share information about people and populations in need of relief from incarceration in Georgia jails.

Your input will help us mitigate harm by facilitating releases that will promote public health, and they will help us to better advocate for people harmed by judges who are choosing to not comply with Judge Melton’s order.

You may submit information anonymously if you choose. You may also share your contact information with us. Relevant documents (such as standing orders) may be emailed to [email protected].

Thank you for joining concerned community members across the state who want to ensure the health and safety of ALL Georgians in this crisis. We are stronger together.

Statement from Sara Totonchi on Possible Covid-19 Exposure at the Fulton County Jail

After the AJC reported yesterday that a detainee is being held in isolation at the Fulton County Jail after possible COVID-19 exposure, the Southern Center for Human Rights releases the following statement from Executive Director Sara Totonchi: 


“Jails are public health powder kegs on a good day, and this highly contagious virus could wreak havoc on the people trapped inside if we do not begin to decarcerate immediately. Elderly and infirm people held in jails should be released immediately, and we must de-prioritize arrests and pretrial detention. The City of Atlanta must follow the lead of cities like New York and Los Angeles, who are releasing people from their jails in the name of public health.”