by Robin Kemp

After the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office repeatedly failed to supply documents related to case counts and management of COVID-19 in the Clayton County Jail under the Georgia Open Records Act, the Clayton Crescent has filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office, seeking mediation of the matter.

On May 27, the Clayton Crescent used a CCSO web form to submit an Open Records Request for COVID-19 case counts since April 15. After getting no response, The Clayton Crescent resubmitted the request via e-mail, adding a request for a copy of the web form.

On July 10, the Clayton Crescent submitted another Open Records request, this time for the following records:

  • Jail Operations Division SOP manual
  • Jail Operations Division Field Orders JOD-2020-001 to present relevant to COVID-19
  • General orders, personnel orders, department notices, training notices, or notifications of critical incident relevant to COVID-19

On July 23, Alan Parker, legal advisor to Sheriff Victor Hill, emailed, “Your request for the jail Admin documents are being pursued, my earlier request for assistance from jail admin some how skewed. Due to your extended wait, I will adjust the cost of retrieval to compensate for the delay.”

As of the close of business on Tuesday, July 28, The Clayton Crescent had not received any of the records requested, which are public under the state’s Open Records Law. The Clayton Crescent filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office, which offers an informal mediation program. Under the program, “(u)pon receiving a complaint from a Georgia citizen, attorneys at the Department of Law work to ensure that local governments provide access to meetings and records that Georgia citizens are entitled to under the law.”

The move comes as the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Leon Stafford reports a new federal lawsuit against Sheriff Victor Hill, the latest in a series brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Georgia ACLU, and, in this case, the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit asks for “a motion for preliminary injunctive relief…against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill to push him to take immediate steps at the jail ‘to prevent and mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus that causes COVID-19.’”

One inmate who spoke to The Clayton Crescent in the presence of his attorney and on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation behind bars has alleged that at least one inmate had died on the toilet in his cell, that jail staff did not want to retrieve the man’s body, and that contract nursing staff from CorrectHealth argued over who would take inmate temperatures to check for COVID-19 symptoms.

According to the inmate, “(Y)ou know, they’re hesitant on going in here to help these guys…. Uh, another inmate worker is telling that same officer. He said, ‘Oh, we got a guy.’ He said ‘the guy at eight.’ And apparently they already knew about it because the inmate worker said, ‘the guy in eight, in 8402,’ he said, ‘he’s been asking y’all to come down here for a couple of days. Y’all know he got that.’ He said, ‘You know, y’all know he got that shit. And uh, he’s been asking for you guys to come down here.’ This officer out his mouth said this, ‘But I’m not going down there to mess with nobody sick. I’ll make a phone call and we’ll try to get somebody down there.’”

A Clayton County Jail inmate at a first appearance hearing via Zoom wears a towel as a mask to prevent COVID-19. The towel does not cover his nose.

The inmate claimed that jail staff retaliated against an inmate who texted about the COVID-19 death by placing him in “the hole.”

In an update, the inmate told The Clayton Crescent that COVID-19 has been spreading in the weeks since his interview. He said that inmates who serve weekend sentences and who are required to be dropped off and picked up are worried about spreading the disease to friends, relatives, and strangers on the outside. He also says that low-level offenders are now being housed in general population and that crowded cells and dorms are contributing to the disease’s spread. Inmates are not provided PPE and are forced to bargain for spare underwear or use towels to fashion masks for their faces.

The federal suit alleges that at least 72 inmates and 13 jail staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Clayton County Public Health officials have confirmed only one COVID-19 inmate death, which had been overlooked because the inmate had been taken to another facility. It’s not yet clear whether that was the same inmate who allegedly died on the toilet in Cell 8402.

A July 1 federal suit, also filed by the ACLU of Georgia and the Southern Center for Human Rights against Hill, alleges jail conditions violates inmates’ rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.

On May 28, the groups also sued Hill, Parker, and Public Information Officer Philip Price in Clayton County Superior Court, alleging the men had failed to fulfill an April Open Records Request on April 29 for data “concerning the impact of the coronavirus pandemic at the Clayton County Jail…as part of a larger effort to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people in jails across Georgia.” That case is pending before Judge Kathryn Powers.

Coincidentally, The Clayton Crescent had separately sought the same information about COVID-19 case counts about the same time, but had had no knowledge of the case.

At that time, Parker posted to Sheriff Hill’s Nixle account, denying any COVID-19 breakout in the jail and accusing the media of having “falsely exaggerated the facts to suit their story.” Parker did not refute the allegations, only saying that “we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit in a court of law, not in the press.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation served a search warrant on Hill’s office June 10. The FBI has not said whether the search was related to COVID-19, allegations that Hill had retaliated against a deputy’s landscaping contractor, Glenn Howell, by restraining him nearly naked in a chair for several hours, or other matters. Howell is also suing Hill in federal court.

Read our coverage of COVID-19 in the Clayton County Jail:

May 29, 2020: Southern Center for Human Rights sues Hill over COVID-19 records

June 1, 2020: CCSO says it doesn’t have COVID-19 counts after Open Records Request

July 2, 2020: Clayton County inmates sue Sheriff Victor Hill over COVID-19 conditions

July 2, 2020: LISTEN: Attorneys Kosha Tucker, Sarah Geraghty on Clayton County Jail COVID-19 lawsuit (podcast)

July 2, 2020: Clayton County Jail inmate complaints about COVID-19

July 7, 2020: Clayton County Jail: 68 COVID-19 cases as of July 6

July 9, 2020: BREAKING: Clayton County inmate COVID-19 death confirmed