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SCHR Sends Warning Letter to Lee Arrendale State Prison

On Friday, SCHR sent a letter to Warden Murray Tatum of Lee Arrendale State Prison (Arrendale), outlining serious concerns about the torturous conditions of confinement at the prison, as well as the treatment of medically vulnerable women — particularly those having just given birth and those suffering from COVID-19. Women incarcerated at Arrendale live in filthy cells with defective plumbing and electricity, and medically vulnerable women are placed in medical isolation without adequate sanitation and access to basic necessities. At least five women incarcerated at Arrendale who have given birth within the last six months have been shackled — illegally —  and/or placed in solitary confinement in their immediate postpartum period. 

HB 345 — The Dignity Act — passed in Georgia in 2019. The law prohibits a prison from using “handcuffs, waist shackles, leg irons, or restraints of any kind” on a woman up to six weeks after giving birth. Despite this, at Arrendale, shackling postpartum women appears to be the norm, not the exception. Georgia law also prohibits prison administrators from placing women in solitary confinement in the 6 weeks after they give birth.  However, women at Arrendale are regularly locked inside their cells nearly 24 hours a day, just days after giving birth to, and being separated from, their new babies. 

One woman was placed in solitary confinement at Arrendale 48 hours after giving birth. She remained in solitary for 13 days, wearing the same bloodied pajamas she wore during delivery. During that time, she was locked in her cell for 24 hours each day, except when she was escorted to the shower while handcuffed. Another woman was placed in isolation with a COVID-19 positive person just a few days after giving birth, despite displaying no symptoms of COVID-19 herself. Except for twice-weekly showers, she remained isolated around the clock with the COVID positive patient for approximately one month.

Women at Arrendale are living in filthy housing conditions that are unfit for human habitation in any time, let alone during an unprecedented public health crisis. The open dorms are dirty and vermin-infested, with bunk beds that make social distancing all but impossible. The dorms’ garbage areas overflow with maggots and attract rats, mice, and insects. The sinks and toilets in the dorms frequently overflow, forcing women to clean up spilled feces and urine from the ground, despite not being given adequate cleaning supplies. The power regularly goes out.

At the prison, medical isolation is functionally indistinguishable from punitive solitary confinement. Women with symptoms or diagnoses of COVID-19 are sent to medical isolation in A-Unit, where they are housed in unsanitary cells, crawling with vermin, and deprived of regular drinking water, showers, and sanitary products. In cells without working sinks, women must bang on their cell doors for hours just to receive drinking water. One woman reported that after begging for water, she only received cloudy water from the mop closet. Due to understaffing, there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, and the women report that they sometimes must attempt to nurse each other back to health.

The letter also addresses the myriad ways in which the prison is cutting off womens’ ability to be in contact with loved ones, file grievances, and receive secure legal mail. Women in medical isolation are unable to regularly use the phone. One woman reported that when she was finally permitted to use the phone, she was only allowed to make a three-minute call to her family members. Prison staff reportedly pressured her to tell her family members that she felt fine. 

All of these issues are compounded by how grossly understaffed the prison is at the moment. As of December 2020, Arrendale had a staff vacancy rate of 62%, with a turnover rate of 17%, the highest turnover rate of any closed-security facility in Georgia. Among other things, understaffing severely compromises incarcerated peoples’ ability to access necessary medical care.

SCHR is deeply concerned that the conditions at Arrendale, and the treatment of postpartum women and those with symptoms or diagnoses of COVID-19, violate Georgia law and fall well below constitutional standards. The letter asks the prison to take immediate actions (listed in the letter) and respond by April 20, 2021.