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.”

SCHR Sends Public Letter to State Regarding the Potential Spread of COVID-19 to People in Georgia Prisons

On March 13, 2010, the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a public letter to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (Parole Board) regarding the anticipated spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) to people incarcerated in Georgia prisons. Given the mortality rate associated with the virus, SCHR is deeply concerned about the virus’s spread to at-risk people, particularly the elderly, within the closed confines of a prison setting.

Requests to GDC

We ask the GDC 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.

Requests to Parole Board

We ask the Parole Board to take immediate steps to plan for ways to reduce the prison population by some significant percentage – e.g. by 5% or 10% – if required by the circumstances of the pandemic. Specifically, we ask the Parole Board to 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. In making this request, we note that the Georgia Constitution gives the Parole Board the authority to “parole any person who is age 62 or older.”

You can read the full letter below or by following this link.

2020.03.13-Letter-to-GDC-and-GBPP

Civil Rights Groups Undertake Voter Education for People in Georgia Jails

Yesterday, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Dēmos mailed 1,000 nonpartisan, voter education packets containing know-your-rights documents and absentee ballot applications to people incarcerated in Gwinnett, Glynn, and Randolph County jails. This mailing precedes the March 20, 2020 deadline for requesting an absentee ballot to cast in the presidential primary election.

In 2019, Georgia amended state law to allow eligible, registered voters who are detained in jail to have absentee ballots mailed to the jail. State law had previously prohibited election officials from sending ballots to a jail.

Yesterday’s mailing is part of a larger effort undertaken by SCHR and Dēmos to provide information about these recent changes to Georgia law. Both organizations have been working with local grassroots groups—such as Southerners on New Ground and the NAACP—to disseminate educational materials. They also sent an earlier round of 1,000 voter education guides and absentee ballots to people in the Cobb, Richmond, and Sumter County jails, and plan to send at least 2,000 additional mailings later this year.

“Roughly 40,000 people are held in Georgia jails on any given day—many of whom are detained pretrial and eligible to vote,” said Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney at SCHR. “However, people in jails are often unaware that they remain eligible to vote or that there are means available for requesting and casting ballots from jail.”

 “Each individual vote and voice represent a critical contribution to our democracy,” said Chiraag Bains, Director of Legal Strategies at Dēmos. “The recent change in Georgia law and the fact that so many eligible, but incarcerated voters are unaware of their voting rights, fueled the effort to disseminate educational materials this year. We hope these materials help people to determine whether they have the right vote and, if so, to exercise that right in the coming election.”

The materials circulated to individuals incarcerated in jails include:

  • A know-your-rights document that provides information about who is qualified to vote in Georgia and how people in jail can exercise their voting rights;
  • An absentee ballot application; and
  • A hotline number that individuals may call free of charge if they encounter problems voting.

While jail staff may not erect barriers to people’s voting rights, some eligible voters have encountered problems in exercising their voting rights. The hotline allows eligible, jailed voters to report if they are unable to obtain an absentee ballot in a timely way through the jail’s mail system, lack the identification required for first-time voters in a federal election, or don’t have postage to send in their ballot. “We urge Georgia sheriffs to take steps to ensure that eligible voters in their custody are not blocked from exercising the right to vote,” said Sarah Geraghty.

A copy of the know-your-rights document is available here.

SCHR is a nonprofit civil rights law office that represents people in the criminal legal system in the South, and Dēmos is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that works on voting rights and democracy issues.

Voting-Rights-Fact-Sheet-8.5×11-Revised-1.30.2020

Justice Day 2020: Focused on the Future

Last Thursday, over 400 attendees from across Georgia gathered at the state capitol for the ninth annual criminal justice advocacy day. Hosted by many partners of the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership (JRP) – a collection of over 50 organizations interested in advancing criminal justice reform in Georgia – Justice Day 2020: Focused on the Future engaged attendees in a discussion about the ways to bring opportunity, dignity, and redemption to those involved in Georgia’s criminal legal systems.

Legislators and members of the JRP opened Justice Day with an overview of the day’s programming. Mazie Lynn Causey, Policy Advocate with Georgia Associate of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL), charged the audience with uplifting and amplifying the voices of those who are most directly impacted by the criminal legal system through the day’s themes: Opportunity, Dignity, Redemption, and Action. Marissa Dodson, Public Policy Director at SCHR, provided an overview of the JRP’s legislative agenda for the 2019-2020 legislative session. Representative Andy Welch talked about the budget cuts Governor Kemp has proposed for criminal justice agencies and encouraged attendees to urge their Senators to leave Georgia’s public defender program budget intact.

The day continued with an array of advocates, legislators, and people directly impacted by Georgia’s criminal legal system who provided diverse commentary on criminal justice reform priority areas. Speakers developed their remarks around the four core themes of the day that Ms. Causey presented and encompassed the stages of the criminal legal system from arrest and initial involvement to reentry. Topics ranged from “crimmigration”—a term coined to describe how criminal-legal and immigration systems interact and deprive people of access to opportunity—to a speech from Tariq Baiyina of Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Atlanta Chapter (IMAN Atlanta), who used his personal experiences with voting disenfranchisement due to a felony to illuminate the myriad ways that the criminal-legal system continues to deprive people of dignity long after they are under direct correctional control.

Midway through the program attendees shifted their focus away from listening and learning from speakers to the final theme of the day— action. They received a crash course in ways to lobby legislators and those who identified as directly impacted by the criminal-legal system headed over to the Capitol to share their stories and advocate for positive reforms. Other participants chose between activities that deepened their understanding of the themes of Justice Day; including workshops on artistic reflection, storytelling, letter-writing to the children of incarcerated parents, and a virtual reality solitary confinement experience provided by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). Justice Day attendees also donated over 50 Lbs. of bar soap and shampoo to be distributed to the women at Lee Arrendale Prison, and over 140 books and magazines for the library at the Metro Re-Entry Facility in Atlanta.

Over lunch, April LaLand-Sentmanat, founder and CEO Minister of Woman-2-Woman & Associates (W2WA), delivered Justice Day 2020’s keynote speech. Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat described the ways that her own experiences with substance use and domestic violence, absent adequate social services, led to her incarceration and an excessive probationary period. Though the criminal legal system utterly failed to provide her with any of the resources she needed to thrive, Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat provided powerful testimony on the role spirituality, Georgia Justice Project’s legal advocacy, and her own determination and voice played in her recovery. Ms. LaLand-Sentmanat’s work with W2WA now allows her to empower and uplift other women in crisis through W2WA’s workshops, temporary safe housing, and employment assistance, among other services.

Tiffany Roberts, SCHR’s Community Engagement and Movement Building Counsel, closed out Justice Day by presenting the Justice Reform Partnership’s Justice Day 2020 Freedom Fighter Award to Marilynn Winn and Women on the Rise for their work to close the Atlanta City Detention Center. Sharon Turner and Denise Ruben accepted the award on behalf of Ms. Winn, and left Justice Day attendees with an apt sentiment— “When we fight, we win.”

You can watch the live stream from the event below.