People in Georgia prisons face extensive overcrowding combined with limited access to frequently inadequate medical care, leading many to worry that the pandemic is spreading rampantly in prisons where there is little transparency to the public.
So far, the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) has reported a total of 720 cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated in Georgia prisons, and 17 deaths. It is, however, possible that the number of cases is underreported due to multiple factors.
The Georgia Department of Corrections is testing people who have newly arrived in the state’s prison system from county jails; however, there may be problems in the state’s testing plans.
All people entering the Georgia prison system go through one of two prisons before being sent to a more permanent location: Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (GDCP) or Lee Arrendale State Prison. Both are sex segregated, with the former housing those with a male legal gender marker, and the latter those with a female marker.
According to a GDC document acquired by Georgia Voice, prisoners are expected to spend at least eight days in GDCP before transferring to a longer-term prison. With GDCP facing overcrowding and COVID-19 tests only capable of detecting the virus after a person has been infected for several days, it is quite possible that the virus is spreading among people in GDCP after they have been tested but before they receive their test results.
Georgia Voice submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Georgia Department of Corrections requesting documentation of the total number of people in Georgia prisons tested for COVID-19. GDC attorney McCall Trammell replied by email, writing: “There is no record stating the total number of tests given.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ people in general, and transgender people in particular, faced extreme disparities in incarceration.
LGBTQ people are imprisoned at roughly three times the rate of the general population, with 16% of all transgender people having been imprisoned at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. That number more than doubles for black transgender people, of whom 47% have been imprisoned at least once. Black transgender women face the highest incarceration rate of any demographic in the country.
The overrepresentation of LGBTQ people is especially apparent in women’s prisons, where 40% of all incarcerated people are lesbian or bisexual.
Meanwhile, half of all transgender women who have been incarcerated report “mistreatment, victimization, or denial of health care in jail or prison,” according to an article by Sari l. Reisner et al. of the Harvard School of Public Health. The mistreatment transgender women face in prison is doubtless compounded by the fact that most transgender women are sent to men’s prisons.
The discrimination LGBTQ people face compounds already existing problems in prison health care.
The University of Augusta is the health care provider for all state prisons in Georgia, and hires doctors, nurses, and other prison medical workers through its Department of Correctional Healthcare. The university has had a poor track record of vetting the doctors and nurses it hires, which has led to many reports from multiple news sources about unqualified, incompetent prison doctors and the needless deaths of their patients.
Perhaps the most infamous was Dr. Yvon Nazaire, who was hired by Georgia Correctional Healthcare despite being sanctioned by the New York State Department of Health for the negligent treatment of five patients. Nazaire spent a decade as the medical director of Pulaski State Prison before being fired in 2015 after nine of his patients had died and at least one was left in a vegetative state.
Chronic understaffing as a result of low retention rates compounds the problem of incompetent doctors. Last year, The Augusta Chronicle reported that Augusta State Medical Prison, the only prison hospital in Georgia, was extremely understaffed, leading to a low quality of patient care.
Underscoring its retention and recruitment difficulties, Augusta State University’s website listed 253 openings for positions in “correctional health care” as of the time of writing.
Georgia Voice contacted Andrew Baumann, the accreditation director of the Medical Association of Georgia’s Correctional Healthcare Committee, to request the medical accreditation reports of Augusta State Medical, Georgia Diagnostic, and Pulaski State Prisons. He responded with a link to the contact page for Augusta State University’s Department of Correctional Healthcare. Georgia Voice called the number on the page multiple times, but no one answered the phone.
To be continued with an interview with Dr. Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History and founder of the world’s first transgender studies department at the University of Arizona.