DOJ opens probe of violence against Georgia prison inmates

DOJ opens probe of violence against Georgia prison inmates

In this Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 file photo, an unidentified prisoner on death row stands in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, in Jackson, Ga.

David Goldman | AP

The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday it is opening a civil rights investigation of prisons in Georgia, with a focus on harm against inmates by other prisoners, and the targeting of LGBTQ inmates for sexual violence by prisoners and staff.

The probe comes as prisons in Georgia saw at least 26 people in its prisons dying from confirmed or suspected homicides in 2020, 18 such cases this year, and “reports of countless other assaults,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

She also cited a major riot in one prison last year, and disturbances elsewhere in Georgia’s correctional system.

Clarke said the investigation was motivated by complaints by inmates, family members and other “stakeholders” such as advocacy groups, as well as by “an extensive review of publicly available information,” including leaked photos showing gang activity in Georgia prisons.

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“We did find sufficient justification to open this investigation,” said Clarke, who spoke at a Zoom press conference with the acting U.S. attorneys who head prosecutors’ offices in all three of Georgia’s federal districts.

Clarke said the probe will examine whether Georgia prisons are violating the 8th Amendment rights of inmates. That constitutional amendment bars government authorities from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments” on prisoners.

“This is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department: ensuring lawful and humane conditions in our nation’s jails,” she said.

Clarke said that extreme staffing shortages and high turnover among correctional officers “are persistent problems in Georgia.”

She noted that “without adequate supervision” by prison staff, inmates are at increased risk of harming or killing themselves.

But, Clarke added, “We’ve drawn no conclusions yet. This investigation will allow us to go in and investigate the facts.”

Clarke said that if the investigators determine violations by Georgia’s prison system, “we will work with the state to work on mutually acceptable solutions.”

She said the DOJ has “been looking at Georgia prisons for years.”

“We opened an investigation in 2016. And while I can’t comment on the status of an open investigation, we’re continuing the work that we initiated,” Clarke said.

The prior investigation was eyeing the treatment of gay and transgender inmates in Georgia’s correction institutions.

That probe was the first DOJ probe to focus on LGBT inmates.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, in a statement later Tuesday said, “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. It is an important first step toward protecting the human rights of incarcerated people in Georgia’s prisons,”  Ossoff said. “I thank Attorney General [Merrick] Garland and Assistant Attorney General Clarke for listening as I’ve raised this issue and for taking action.”

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