A former Baker Correctional Institution corrections officer spoke about the COVID-19 outbreak inside the prison.
Preston Easterwood left the prison in March, just as COVID-19 was ramping up across the nation, but before it officially got into the prison.
Now, he’s using his experience at the prison to further his education.
Easterwood was at the prison from late fall 2019 to late this spring, and he got sick, resulting in him having to quarantine for two weeks.
He never got tested for COVID-19.
The focus of his master’s program capstone project at Georgia Tech was occupational safety and health during a pandemic. While his senior project was not specifically about jails or prisons, being a corrections officer at the prison, then seeing hundreds of positive cases fill the facility, had an impact on his research.
“It wasn’t really surprising given the nature of the facility and that there is a large inmate population,” Easterwood said.
After his quarantine, Easterwood decided to enter into a voluntary layoff.
“Because I have a son who is a vulnerable member of society,” he said.
Easterwood said he’s not surprised COVID-19 got into the prison, and describes panic and anxiety right before he left.
He worked inside the prison right as the pandemic was in full force early in the spring, when prison staff were scrambling to find enough personal protection equipment and trying to keep inmates socially distanced, a near impossible task.
“So there was a lot of anxiety,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of information about the virus at the time and so we only knew what we were getting from the media. So there was a lot of anxiety about the inmate population as well as officers.”
Easterwood says officers and staff immediately started ramping up cleaning and disinfecting, wearing face coverings, and everyone entering the facility had to be screened.
But the virus still got in. Right now, 563 inmates and 36 staff members have tested positive.
Easterwood said there’s only so much the prison can do.
“You can’t grow the facility you can’t put certain groups of populations together,” Easterwood said. “Social distancing is difficult, there’s been a shortage of PPE because of the pandemic.”
Easterwood said anything more than what prison is already doing with cleaning and isolation would have to come through legislation or action from the state level.
“With prisons, the nature of the business is you can’t just re-house inmates and place any inmates together,” he said. “There are procedures we have to follow so it makes it difficult to social distance inside of a prison. You can’t just put any two inmates together.”
Easterwood is continuing to work on his master’s project at Georgia Tech.
His 95-page report is titled, “Responding to a Pandemic from a Health & Safety Professional’s Perspective,” geared at helping private businesses and organizations create pandemic response plans and respond to crisis.
His report can be read by clicking or swiping here.
It’s not a project on prisons, but Easterwood said his experience at the prison fueled his fire.
“We could have did an entire research project just on corrections,” he said. “But we decided to stick with private organizations because we felt like if we could develop a pandemic preparedness plan for them it would help save lives and it could be retrofitted for other organizations as well.”
The research has yet to be vetted by Georgia Tech’s Coronavirus task force and does not represent the views of Georgia Tech.
Easterwood says he just hopes that it can help save lives.