Open Letter to Fulton County District Attorney From Healthcare Professionals and Health Allies Regarding COVID-19 in Jails
District Attorney Paul Howard
136 Pryor St.
Atlanta, GA 30303
Dear District Attorney Paul Howard,
Since the first positive COVID-19 test in Fulton County jails on March 23, we are aware of at least 53 cases within the jail system; infecting 16 incarcerated people, 35 staff members, and resulting in two deaths.
We are writing as healthcare providers and health allies in Fulton County, Georgia expressing our grave concern regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk it imposes on one of our society’s most medically neglected and vulnerable populations, the incarcerated. As such, we are urging for the immediate release and resourcing of as many individuals as possible held in Fulton County jails to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
Our call to action is as follows:
1. Work with judges for the immediate release of as many people as possible from the Fulton County jail system
2. Assign signature bonds to everyone currently held on bail or pretrial detention
3. Guarantee conditions of release with the least restrictions possible, discouraging the use of electronic monitoring
4. Provide testing for everyone who traffics in and out of Fulton County jails including staff and personnel that work at the jails
5. Require the availability of sufficient soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer for incarcerated individuals without charge
6. Ensure those released have access to trauma informed community-based services in order to help stabilize their transition back to society
7. Conduct a needs assessment in collaboration with social workers and community organizations to determine what resources and support may be needed for individuals prior to release
8. Provide free video and phone calls to individuals in Fulton County jails until they are released, in light of in-person visitation being suspended
9. Close Union City Jail permanently, a condemned building with deplorable and unhealthy living conditions
10. Withhold the transfer of incarcerated individuals from Fulton County jails to the Atlanta City Detention Center, as this would do more to increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission than curb its spread
Jails and prisons are designed to maximize control of the incarcerated population instead of minimizing disease transmission. This fact is compounded by often crowded, unsanitary conditions, lack of adequate access to hygiene materials such as soap and water or hand sanitizers, poor nutrition, and failure to adhere to recognized standards for disease prevention, all of which have disastrous public health effects. The frequent transfer of individuals from one jail facility to another, and intake of newly detained individuals from the community further complicates the prevention and detection of infectious disease outbreaks. A timely response to reported and observed symptoms is needed to interrupt viral transmission, yet delays in testing, diagnosis, and access to care are dangerous in jails and prisons.
With the daily number of COVID-19 cases growing exponentially, health systems as well as resources are already overwhelmed. Intensive care unit (ICU) bed space at Grady Memorial Hospital in Fulton County is at capacity. Rapid, disastrous outbreaks in Fulton County jails will put further strain on the already saturated healthcare system as infected individuals are transferred for treatment to local hospitals. This will exacerbate issues of containment of the virus and put more members of our community at risk.
Given these facts, it is only a matter of time before remaining in jail during this pandemic becomes a death sentence, for both those who are incarcerated and those who work closely within the jails as demonstrated by the massive outbreak in the New York City jail system. As of April 3rd, 512 incarcerated people and staff members at Rikers Island jail have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail now has one of the highest infectious rates per population density in the world. Catastrophic spread is an inevitability if we do not act fast. Considering the extreme risks presented by these conditions, it is impossible to ensure that incarcerated people will be spared without deliberate efforts being made for their release.
The World Health Organization states that “The rights of all affected people must be upheld, and all public health measures must be carried out without discrimination of any kind. People in prisons and other places of detention are not only likely to be more vulnerable to infection with COVID-19, they are also especially vulnerable to human rights violations…”. It is our responsibility to protect incarcerated people. We strongly recommend that all people incarcerated within the Fulton County jails be released for their own health and the health of the community.
The following signatories*
*This letter represents the views of the following signatories, and does not necessarily reflect the views of their respective institutions.
This letter was drafted and modified by members of Southerners on New Ground Atlanta and Atlanta-based members of the Social Medicine Consortium. Portions of this letter were penned by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest Medical Providers Network and Doctors for Camp Closure.
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