A new federal civil rights investigation is looking into prisoner deaths, rampant violence and abuse of gay, lesbian, and transgender people held in Georgia prisons.
Civil rights organizations that have pushed for federal intervention in Georgia’s prisons welcomed Tuesday’s announcement that the Department of Justice has launched a probe into a correctional system where murders and suicides have spiked during the pandemic. The investigation will also examine allegations that staff and inmates repeatedly physically and sexually abuse LGBT inmates.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, chief of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Tuesday that the agency will investigate conditions inside Georgia’s 34 state prisons where at least 26 inmates were killed last year.
The aim is to also shed light on how understaffing and other conditions played a role in a Ware State Prison riot and with inmates becoming more violent against other prisoners. Another investigation into the treatment of gay and transgender inmates from 2016 is still ongoing, Clarke said.
“Ensuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority,” she said in a statement. “The Justice Department’s investigations into prison conditions have been successful at identifying systemic constitutional violations and their causes, fixing those causes, and stopping the violations.
“We are investigating prison violence and abuse in Georgia’s prisons to determine whether Constitutional violations exist, and if so, how to stop them,” Clarke said.
The Southern Center for Human Rights said it is important to have the U.S. attorney’s office involved, but stressed improvements need to be made as soon as possible to protect people locked up behind bars. In September, the organization that combats mass incarceration and champions other criminal justice issues, called on the Justice Department to intervene in Georgia prisons.
The organization also filed a federal lawsuit against the state on Friday, alleging inmates were isolated for extended periods of time without food, water, or access to a toilet at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
There have been at least 48 murders or suspected murders in state prisons between Jan. 1, 2020, and Aug. 19, 2021, and another 38 documented suicides, according to the human rights center. A total of eight homicides or suspected homicides inside the prisons were reported during 2018.
“We are so grateful to the DOJ for heeding our call and recognizing the human rights crisis that is unfolding every day in Georgia prisons,” said Sara Totonchi, the center’s executive director. “This is a significant step in our ongoing struggle for accountability for the lives that have been lost and for the people who continue to suffer behind the walls.”
The Georgia Department of Corrections said after the investigation was announced it is committed to keeping all inmates safe.
“The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence,” the statement said. “This commitment includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.
“We cooperated fully with the USDOJ’s initial investigation in 2016 and are proud of the service and dedication of our team since then to perform during unprecedented challenges,” the statement said.
In August, a group of state lawmakers, including state Rep. Josh McLaurin, was denied access to Lee Arrendale State Prison when they made an unannounced visit to investigate the conditions at the women’s prison.
McLaurin appealed on Tuesday morning to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles for its assistance in mitigating the dangers that place too many prisoners and correctional staff in unsafe situations.
“The crisis we’ve experienced from the pandemic is certainly the most visible and pressing part of what is happening with GDC,” the Sandy Springs Democrat said prior to the U.S. Attorney’s Office announcement. “It’s exacerbated conditions to such a point where you have conversation with the media, at DOJ about what it’s going to take.
“I pray to God that we’re not waiting on federal intervention to fix what’s happening with GDC,” McLaurin said.
Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff on Tuesday thanked the justice department for stepping in to review the state correctional facilities.
“Conditions of incarceration in Georgia are unacceptable, and I will continue to drive the attention and resources of the Federal government toward solutions and accountability. I applaud today’s announcement by the Department of Justice,” the Democratic senator said. “It is an important first step toward protecting the human rights of incarcerated people in Georgia’s prisons.”
Georgia prison officials made a concerted effort to reduce the inmate population for health precautions because of COVID-19, resulting in 46,132 people held at the end of 2020, a dip from more than 53,000 the previous two years. The state Pardons and Parole board accelerated early releases for hundreds of inmates incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
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