Incarcerated LGBTQ seniors were already in a precarious situation before the pandemic.
Now, elderly people are dying from COVID-19 in Georgia prisons.
In the month of May alone, the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) issued eight press releases listing the names of people who died from COVID-19 in state prisons. All were over 50.
Since June, the GDC has quietly ceased issuing press releases when prisoners die from COVID-19, but according to the Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons), eight people have died from the virus in Georgia prisons between the start of June and the time of writing. Because these deaths were not officially announced by the Department of Corrections, it is nearly impossible to determine who has died, and whether they were an older adult.
According to the GDC website, 25 incarcerated people have died from the pandemic, as well as one prison staff member. According to the Marshall Project report cited earlier, that places Georgia as having the seventh highest total number of COVID deaths in state prisons of any state, and the 13th highest COVID-19 fatality rate.
Before the pandemic, Georgia held around 52,200 people in state prisons. That number has gone down, marginally, since the start of the pandemic, but not because of compassionate releases of those at risk from the novel coronavirus. According to another report (www.themarshallproject.org/2020/07/16/prison-populations-drop-by-100-000-during-pandemic) by the Marshall Project, “while many people may be qualified for early releases, very few actually got out.” Instead, a variety of factors from the pandemic slowed the rate at which people enter the prison system. In Georgia, that translated to a reduction in the prison population from around 52,200 to just under 52,000.
Back in May, Georgia Voice contacted the ACLU of Georgia in order to better understand the status of efforts to secure compassionate releases for elderly prisoners. At the time, Staff Attorney Kosha Tucker was petitioning for the release of six nonviolent prisoners over the age of 60.
Unfortunately, the transcript for that interview was lost, but notes taken from it indicate that the parole board at the time had not released any of the people on whose behalf the ACLU was petitioning, and that one person who was considered an ideal candidate for compassionate release had been explicitly denied parole.
Georgia Voice contacted the ACLU of Georgia again in July but was unable to schedule a follow-up interview with Tucker before the time of writing. It is unclear whether any of the older adults on whose behalf the ACLU petitioned for release have been granted parole. Given the minimal reduction in the Georgia prison population during the pandemic, it seems unlikely that the state parole board is granting any significant number of compassionate releases to those most in danger within Georgia prisons.
The lack of compassionate release for elderly people in Georgia prisons likely means that older adults will die who might have otherwise avoided becoming sick with COVID-19. According to the Equal Justice Initiative (eji.org/news/covid-19s-impact-on-people-in-prison), “nationwide, the known infection rate for COVID-19 in jails and prisons is about two and a half times higher than in the general population.” Access to medical care in prisons is also more restricted, and frequently substandard, almost certainly leading to a higher death rate for those who become infected.
Georgia Voice asked to interview members of the parole board, but was denied the request.
Overall, data specific to older LGBTQ people in prison is difficult to find, with no readily accessible studies covering the exact topic. That makes it difficult to determine whether older LGBTQ people in prison are more in danger from the pandemic than the general population. There are, however, studies that look at the treatment of the LGBTQ prison population. From these studies (transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/resources/TransgenderPeopleBehindBars.pdf) it is known that incarcerated LGBTQ people face extremely disproportionate rates of sexual violence, as well as other violence, from both staff and other prisoners.
Older LGBTQ adults outside of prison face numerous challenges stemming from discrimination in matters ranging from employment, to housing, to health care, according to a 2017 report authored by the Movement Advancement Project and SAGE. Nearly half of “transgender older adults” live “at or below 200% of the federal poverty level,” with the same being true of bisexual elders. Poverty and lack of family support are both known to be factors that increase the likelihood of becoming homeless after release from prison.
For this article, Georgia Voice sent three open records requests to the GDC requesting documents relating to LGBTQ accommodations, COVID-19 testing request denials, and COVID-19 protections for seniors. As of the time of writing, no reply was received, but future articles may be updated with the findings.