The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into civil rights violations and poor conditions inside Georgia prisons, including the targeting of LGBTQ inmates by prisoners and staff.
On Tuesday, in a news conference, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the Justice Department found “significant justification” to open the investigation, citing dozens of murders, stabbings and beatings, scores of smuggled weapons, and documented gang activity inside state-run prisons.
Last year, 26 people in state-run prisons were killed in confirmed or suspected homicides, and 18 others have been killed this year. Additionally, an investigation by the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that monitors conditions in state prisons, last year found that inmates in Georgia state prisons had a suicide rate twice the national average, raising further red flags.
Prison watchdog groups have also expressed concerns over the preponderance of inmate-on-inmate violence, and the alleged mistreatment and targeting of LGBTQ inmates at the hands of fellow prisoners and staffers.
If federal investigators find evidence of systemic violations, they will issue a written report outlining minimal remedial measures, which the Georgia Department of Corrections would be required to implement. Clarke added that the Justice Department would work with the state to find and implement solutions.
Clarke cited previous investigations in Alabama, where the DOJ sued the state last year over the prevalence of violence among prisoners and the use of excessive force by staff, and in New Jersey, where the department investigated the abuse of female inmates at a New Jersey prison where the women were being regularly sexually assaulted by guards, as an example of the department’s commitment to combating civil rights violations. The DOJ and New Jersey have since reached an agreement to implement better safeguards and increase supervision of correctional officers in order to prevent against sexual assault, reports The Washington Post.
“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,” Clarke said. “We are investigating prison violence and abuse in Georgia’s prisons to determine whether constitutional violations exist, and if so, how to stop them.”
The investigation into Georgia prisons comes after advocacy groups complained of deplorable living conditions and escalating violence — both of which have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, watchdog groups say. It also comes on the heels of a class-action lawsuit, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, challenging solitary confinement conditions at Georgia State Prison, the main maximum-security facility in the state.
According to the lawsuit, those kept in solitary confinement are subjected to degrading, filthy conditions where rats and roaches crawl on people while they sleep and in their food. Prisoners in solitary confinement are deprived of stimuli for months or years, have no access to programming, and limited access to phone calls, recreation, or time outside their cells. As a result, more than 70% of the prisoners in solitary confinement, experience serious mental illness — which often goes untreated — and 12 people kept in solitary confinement at Georgia State Prison committed suicide between September 2019 and May 2021.
The lawsuit also claims that conditions at the prison’s solitary confinement units are exacerbated by staffing shortages, with the prison’s correctional officer vacancy rate exceeding 70%. As a result, prisoners have been left for extended periods in temporary holding areas without food, water, or access to a toilet.
On Tuesday, the SCHR issued a statement welcoming the DOJ investigation as a “significant step forward in the fight for accountability for the lives that have been lost and for the people who continue to suffer in Georgia’s prisons.” The organization had previously sought to raise the issue under the Trump administration, and demanded an investigation into the abuses occurring in state prisons.
Officials with the Georgia Department of Corrections have denied they have violated inmates’ civil rights or failed to protect them from violence, telling USA Today in a statement that prison officials are “committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody.”
“This commitment includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault,” the agency said in a written statement. “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.”
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