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The justice department is investigating Georgia prisons: What is it looking for?

·3 min read
Andrew Harnik/AP

The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Georgia’s prison system in September, citing concerns about violence, prison staffing and the safety of LGBTQ+ prisoners.

The civil investigation will examine two central issues in prisons across the state: prisoners harmed by other prisoners and sexual abuse of LGBTQ+ inmates.

The DOJ will investigate whether “the state of Georgia adequately protects prisoners” in medium and high-level security prisons “from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners as required by the 8th Amendment.”

The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 1980 and signed by President Jimmy Carter, gives the DOJ the authority to protect the civil rights of inmates in state prisons.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke said at a press conference announcing the investigation the DOJ has gathered information on Georgia prisons from public reports and stakeholders.

Clarke cited more than a dozen possible murders in state prisons this year and 2020’s Ware State Prison riot as areas of concern, although she also said the DOJ began investigating Georgia prisons in 2016.

“For example, in 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide,” she said. “Reports of countless other violence assaults, including stabbings and beatings also have emerged from Georgia prisons… A major riot occurred in one large closed security Georgia prison last year, and disturbances reportedly have occurred in other prisons as well.”

The justice department’s investigation will include more than a dozen prisons in and around Middle Georgia.

“As it relates to this investigation, the Middle District of Georgia is home to 15 of the 35 close and medium security GDOC prisons,” acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter D. Leary said. “In addition, when formerly incarcerated individuals are released from the Georgia Department of Corrections custody, they often reintegrate into our Middle Georgia community.”

Prison Staffing

Clarke mentioned prison staffing several times as one of the potential issues in Georgia. The justice department believes state prisons across the country are “acutely” understaffed, which leads to inadequate supervision of prisoners. Clarke added the lack of staff and mental health services leads to the increased likelihood of suicide and sexual abuse and excessive use of force from staff.

Georgia corrections officers make a little more than $35,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wardens make an average of about $85,000.

The pandemic has also led corrections officers to quit. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Georgia Department of Corrections had 30% of their correctional officers jobs unfilled in June of 2020.

But what can the DOJ do about a lack of guards in Georgia? Clarke didn’t provide a solution at the announcement press conference, noting the justice department hadn’t made any conclusions about what might plague Georgia prisons.

What happens next

Clarke said if the DOJ discovers “systemic constitutional violations,” they’ll report those violations and will work “cooperatively with the state to establish solutions.”

In similar investigations of prison systems in other parts of the country, the justice department often signs consent agreements with states that specify remedies to constitutional violations. If the states, prisons or county jails don’t abide by the consent agreements, the DOJ has sued them in federal courts.

Alabama men’s prisons faced many of the same issues the justice department is investigating in Georgia — prisoner-on-prisoner violence, excessive force from guards and unsafe conditions — and in 2019 the DOJ submitted recommendations for solving those issues. Believing Alabama failed to implement them, the DOJ is now suing the state, alleging it isn’t following its recommendations.

“Our ongoing litigation of conditions in Alabama men’s prisons seeks to address the prevalence of prisoner on prisoner violence and staff use of excessive force,” Clarke said.

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