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NAACP files suit over virus outbreak at Georgia prison

January 22, 2021 GMT

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The NAACP has filed suit against Georgia prison officials, blaming a lack of COVID-19 testing and insufficient safeguards for an outbreak that infected nearly 1-in-10 inmates with the coronavirus at one prison.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order officials at Coffee Correctional Facility in rural southern Georgia to provide more robust testing, enforce social distancing inside the prison and ensure inmates have access to free masks, hand-sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

The NAACP’s Georgia conference filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on behalf of three inmates at the medium-security prison in Coffee County, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southwest of Savannah. They say the Georgia Department of Corrections and CoreCivic, a private company that operates the prison under a state contract, violated inmates’ civil rights by failing to provide reasonable protection against the virus.

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The lawsuit says inmates in the prison’s housing pods sleep 18 inches (0.5 meters) apart and problems with severe leaks and mold put them at a heightened risk of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.

The complaint also says Coffee Correctional Facility “has generally refused to offer COVID-19 tests to people who do not require medical attention,” even if those inmates have symptoms or have been exposed to infected inmates or staff. It says prison officials last year waited to test inmates in a housing pod for medically vulnerable inmates until they saw infections rise — then had 100 inmates test positive in a single round of contact tracing.

“Because a person is locked up behind prison bars does not mean they should be subjected to that kind of treatment,” said the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP.

The NAACP says those conditions are behind the second-largest prison outbreak of the virus in Georgia. The Coffee County prison has reported 235 inmate infections and five deaths linked to the coronavirus since the pandemic began, according to the state Department of Corrections. The prison has capacity for roughly 2,600 total inmates.

Joan Heath, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said Friday that the agency had not received the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.

A spokesman for Tennessee-based CoreCivic, Ryan Gustin, said the company also doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. But Gustin said in an email that administrators at the Georgia prison have followed COVID-19 guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since the outbreak began.

“We take very seriously our responsibility to care for the individuals in our facilities,” Gustin said, “and we work hard to ensure those entrusted to our care are treated respectfully and humanely.”