Every time I drive down highway 365 towards Atlanta, right before I hit Jaemor Farms and the Schoolbus Graveyard, I see a sign on the side of the road that reads “Lee Arrendale State Prison” with an arrow pointing down another asphalt laden road. Whenever I pass that sign, I think about the women incarcerated at the facility and the individuals incarcerated at facilities across Georgia. I have never met any of them, and I have never seen any of them. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to me and the countless other people driving south to Atlanta or north to North Carolina.
While I do not know them personally, they exist. They appear in my mind every time I drive past the green sign on the side of the road. The women incarcerated at Lee Arrendale are counted in the 2020 census as residing in Habersham County and Georgia’s Ninth Congressional District for the next decade, thus impacting voting districts. Ultimately, then, these women are the constituents of the representatives of the city of Alto, Habersham County, Georgia’s Ninth Congressional District, and Georgia itself. However, they cannot vote and when they speak about the atrocities and inhumane treatment that they receive within the confines of the prison, their representatives and the community turn a deaf ear.
I am one of your constituents as well, moving here a few years ago, and I am gravely disturbed by the inhumane treatment of the women incarcerated at Lee Arrendale and at the treatment of incarcerated men and women across the state. Twice over the past few months the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) has written to the overseers at the institution about the inhumane treatment of those incarcerated at the facility. The SCHR reports countless instances of inhumane treatment at the facility, clearly violating the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” within prisons.
Women at Lee Arrendale have experienced “cruel and unusual punishment, specifically women who give birth within the facility. After giving birth, women, as the SCHR put it, “do not receive timely or adequate medical care or basic necessities, and have been in solitary confinement just weeks after giving birth.” Some women remained in the clothes that they gave birth in, wearing the bloodied and stained clothes from the delivery room. After giving birth on June 9, 2021, at Atlanta Medical Center, one mother went back to the infirmary at Lee Arrendale five days later. There, all she had for clothes were “the bloodied and milk-stained clothes she wore during childbirth,” and she washed her “bloodied underwear in the sink to stay clean.” When she received food, she found a cockroach in it, and after letting the officer know, she didn’t receive a meal for the rest of the day or the next day.
The new mother required stitches, and when she returned to the facility, her vagina became infected. Over the course of a week, she continually “filed sick calls seeking treatment,” but these calls went unheeded. When the Deputy Warden of Care finally sent her to the infirmary, “a medical staff person belittled her concerns and sent her back to dorm” telling her that her vaginal stitches would eventually dissolve. The pain became so excruciating that the woman removed the stitches herself with toenail clippers. She did not see a medical staff member for another week, and she did not receive medication until nearly a month after her arrival. As well, she was placed in solitary confinement in a “cage which was infested with insects, wreaking of urine and feces, and containing old food trays.”
Other women reported similar experiences. The Supreme Court has held, notably in Hudson v. McCmillian (1992) that “[t]he use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury.” While we do not see instances of physical beatings in these reports, the treatment of the women, by the facility’s staff, caused them to suffer physical and psychological injuries due to the staff’s actions. In this manner, they have experienced “cruel and unusual punishment” at the hands of those who are in power over them.
Earlier, in Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the high court established that “[d]eliberate indifference by prison personnel to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment contravening the Eighth Amendment.” The women mentioned in the SCHR’s letter experienced “indifference from prison personnel” on numerous occasions, including the lack of medical care and of counseling services. As the SCHR complaint states, “Arrendale continues to deny postpartum mothers basic medical care and treatment, threatening the health and safety of these mothers during one of the most vulnerable and dangerous periods of their lives.”
The deplorable treatment of postpartum women at the facility is only one aspect of the problems. There are unhygienic and uninhabitable conditions across the prison with garbage piling up, mold infestations, and unsanitary food preparation. Along with this, due to understaffing, there is a lack of adequate medical care, increased violence and drug use within the prison, denial of adequate food and water, and denial of showers, cleaning supplies, and food for women in administrative segregation. On top of all of this, the grievance process is ineffective, the women experience retaliation from prison staff when they raise basic humanitarian concerns, and they do not have the required recreation time of seven hours per week and five hours for women in Special Management or administrative segregation dorms as authorized by the GDC.
Recently, state Rep. Erick Allen and other Georgia legislators made a visit to Lee Arrendale to visit the facility. The legislators, even though they showed their credentials, were refused access to the prison for inspection. The lack of transparency is alarming. When a visit is planned, of course, the facility would do everything it could to appear presentable. As Rep. Allen put it in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “If it was safe, it was humane, you’d think they’d want to show it off.” However, this was not the case as the warden, Allen Dills, and GDC commission Timothy Ward denied the legislators access.
I know that the GDC system is extremely understaffed, that the pandemic has placed increased pressure on staff, and there has been an increase in suicides and violence within Georgia’s prisons; however, the inhumane treatment of incarcerated individuals at Lee Arrendale and across the state is inexcusable. I call upon you to address the concerns of the SCHR at Lee Arrendale and across the state. “Truly I tell you,” God will say, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”