Georgia prison

An officer closes the entrance to cell block inside the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison.

(The Center Square) – The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles said Tuesday it is reviewing cases and making release decisions on nonviolent offenders who are within six months of completing their sentences in response to COVID-19.

Three inmates have died from COVID-19 and more than 100 staff members and prisoners have tested positive in Georgia’s correctional facilities, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC).

Two of the inmates who died had underlying medical conditions and were over the age of 60, both higher risk groups for severe complications from COVID-19. 

The corrections department, in a statement, confirmed the first death March 26 as a 49-year-old inmate from the Lee State Prison. The second prisoner, who died April 4, was 67 years old and from the same facility  The third inmate was from Johnson State Prison and died Thursday. He or she was born in 1956. All of the inmates were hospitalized before their deaths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prisons face “unique challenges” in containing the spread of COVID-19. The respiratory disease caused by a new strand of coronavirus is transmitted from person-to-person, according to CDC. Staff, transfers and visitors can introduce COVID-19 to the facilities where quarantines and medical care are limited, health officials said.

Most of the positive cases have been self-reported by staff. About 10,500 employees work for GDC.

Fifty-six staff members at 20 of the state’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. A majority of those cases have been reported at the Lee State Prison, where the first inmate died. 

There are 34 state prisons in Georgia, with about 55,000 prisoners, 3,600 of which are over 60 years old, according to GDC’s March report. 

A total of 63 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Six of the cases were reported at county prisons and one case was at a private prison, Wheeler Correctional Facility. Eight of the cases were reported at the Lee State Prison.

GDC representatives said they have been working with health officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the prisons.

GDC has given staff and inmates masks, suspended visitations, tours and volunteer work, waived medical co-pay for prisoners, increased sanitation and the availability of hygiene products, and are performing routine fever checks.

On March 31, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles Board announced that the members are considering clemency release for nonviolent offenders who are within six months of completing their sentences. 

“The State Board of Pardons and Paroles understands the concerns and fully supports our state’s efforts to combat COVID-19, including safety protocols implemented by the Department of Corrections," Parole Board Chairman Terry Barnard said in a statement. "The Parole Board is operating normally and will continue to use its constitutional authority to make clemency release decisions in the interest of public safety.”

The board has been averaging about 800 releases per month, according to board spokesman Steve Hayes, and expects an approximate total of 200 (above the 800) additional releases this month.