Skip to Content

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 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.