On March 13th, as Georgia was undertaking dramatic steps to stem the tide of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an excellent decision affirming that GIP/SCHR client Johnny Lee Gates is entitled to a new trial after 43 years in prison (26 on death row). Now, with prison transport all but canceled and Georgia court operations suspended for all but essential court functions, 64 year-old Johnny Lee Gates sits in prison awaiting justice. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is likely on the way, if it has not already arrived.
Johnny Lee Gates is not alone.
In this unprecedented and difficult time, we are all adapting to the new challenges that we face. We come together, even as we are separated.
At Georgia Innocence Project, our work to secure freedom and justice for our clients continues, even as the barriers we encounter are significantly compounded by the COVID-19 virus. We will overcome.
COVID-19 Impacts and GIP Response
We closed our office and made the switch to remote work on March 13th, the day the Johnny Lee Gates and Joey Watkins decisions came down. We now meet, strategize, consult, investigate, litigate, and support clients remotely. Everything is scanned in and conducted electronically. We still collect all of our mail three times a week, can be reached any time at email@example.com, and are accepting calls at our usual number. A few of us had a crash course in home-schooling small kids while working full time, as we’re sure many others have too.
We are also addressing new challenges daily regarding our casework and clients. Open Records Act responses and DNA testing are slowed, court access is limited for post-conviction proceedings, and investigations can be difficult when you cannot meet with people in person. But most concerning is that people incarcerated in Georgia prisons are increasingly hard to contact and can be very vulnerable.
We know that while COVID-19 spreads easily and strikes anybody, it can cause serious illness or death at an alarming rate among the elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions. Almost 20 percent of the Georgia prison population is over 50, prison health care is remarkably under-resourced and can be difficult to access, and prisons house high numbers of medically vulnerable people. We also know that controlling this novel coronavirus, to which humans have no acquired immunity, necessitates extreme physical distancing and diligent sanitizing and hand washing. But in densely crowded and unsanitary Georgia prisons, that is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Once inside the prisons, COVID-19 is predicted to spread like wildfire. Jerry Metcalf, currently incarcerated in a Michigan prison, describes the stark reality in this powerful and disturbing piece.
The situation is rapidly becoming critical. COVID-19 is in Georgia prisons now: Lee State Prison, Phillips and the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta have all reported cases among the prison population, staff at prisons have tested positive, and on Thursday night a man who had been imprisoned at Lee State died due to the virus. The population density in Georgia prisons and jails must be reduced immediately, the most vulnerable people released to the extent possible, and sanitation and personal hygiene greatly increased in order to reduce the rapid spread of and devastating impacts COVID-19.
With these concerns in mind, we are diligently working to assess needs and mitigate health and safety risks to our clients. We are making sure they are informed of the situation, know how to protect themselves as much as possible, and can stay in contact with us. We are monitoring and plugging into movements across the state and country to protect and help vulnerable prison and jail populations. The Prison Policy Initiative has compiled many efforts from across the country, and Attorney General Barr recently issued a memo advising federal prisons that they can release some vulnerable and non-violent prisoners to home confinement due to COVID-19.
How You Can Help
We’ve formed relationships with so many people and organizations over the years, and we think of you often and wish you good health and serenity in these challenging times. As we remain socially connected but physically distant, here are some great movies, documentaries, and miniseries to whisk your mind away from COVID-19 — to the much more uplifting topic of wrongful conviction.
Send a Message to GIP Clients
As COVID-19 weighs on our minds, consider the impact it has on people in crowded and unsanitary prisons, especially for the innocent, elderly, and infirm.
By clicking this link, you can submit a brief note of encouragement. We will collect and share the responses with our clients to lift their spirits and remind them that people care and they are not alone.
Make A Donation
This is a difficult and challenging time. You can help us fight for freedom and justice and protect our clients and others, by making a donation to support our work.
Your friendship and support, now more than ever, enables us to respond quickly to changing circumstances, advance innocence cases, and mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
Stay Informed and Educate Others
These are the resources that we’ve used most frequently since COVID-19 began impacting our office, communities, and clients. We’ve found them helpful so far and hope they also help keep you informed too:
- Atlanta Journal Constitution COVID-19 Homepage
- GA Department of Corrections COVID-19 Page
- GA Courts Emergency Judicial Orders
- Explainer – Vulnerability of Prisons & Jails
- Explainer – Emergency Response – Prisons
- SCHR Letter to Georgia Prison Officials Regarding COVID-19
- The Marshall Project: COVID-19 Page
- Prison Policy Initiative: Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Until our next update, be well.