WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is launching an investigation into civil rights violations in Georgia prisons, focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence and targeting of LGBT inmates by prisoners and staff, federal officials said Tuesday.
The announcement comes after advocacy groups said deplorable conditions of confinement and escalating violence – including homicides and suicides – have only worsened during the pandemic. It is part of the Biden Justice Department's civil rights initiatives into reforming the nation's law enforcement agencies and prisons.
The Justice Department found "significant justification" to open the investigation, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a video news conference Tuesday, citing public reports of dozens of homicides, stabbings and beatings, scores of smuggled weapons and open gang activity inside state-run prisons, along with extreme staff shortages.
The DOJ will look into reports of conditions inside state facilities where 26 people died last year by confirmed or suspected homicide. So far this year, there have been 18 homicides, said Clarke, who will be the lead examiner.
If federal investigators find evidence of systematic violations, they will issue a written report outlining the minimal remedial measures, which the Department of Corrections would be forced to implement. Clarke added that the department would work with the state to find and establish solutions.
Georgia officials on Tuesday denied they had systematically violated the rights of inmates or failed to protect them.
"The Georgia Department of Corrections is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody," Lori Benoit, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in prison litigation, welcomed 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," said Hannah Riley, the SCHR's communications director, in a statement to The Washington Post.
Last year the organization requested that the Trump administration intervene and investigate the state's prisons "deplorable" conditions, which it argued had worsened "to a point of constitutional crisis," during the pandemic.
In a letter sent to the Justice Department last September, the SCHR outlined a number of incidents, including riots and escalating violence in several facilities, and pointed to homicide and suicide rates reaching unprecedented levels. The group asked the federal government to step in and launch an investigation "as soon as possible."
"We are not aware of any other group or agency that is likely to intervene," the letter said, claiming their repeated attempts to alert senior correctional administrators of the serious violations had received "no substantive response."
By June of last year, 19 people had died by suicide in Georgia prisons – a suicide rate twice the national average in state prisons, according to the SCHR, which investigates and monitors conditions in state jails and prisons.
In August of last year, hundreds of prisoners came out of their cells at Ware State Prison in Waycross, Ga., and ran through the compound setting a golf cart on fire and breaking several windows. The riot left three inmates and two prison guards injured, the Georgia Department of Corrections said. Two other large-scale riots took place in two different facilities in the span of three months.
In their letter to the DOJ, the SCHR argued that before the riots men had been left locked in their cells for weeks or months at a time without sufficient food, water, showers or medical care.
SCHR also pointed at videos reportedly taken my inmates that showed injured prisoners covered in blood, prison dorms with no security supervision, groups of men roaming lockdown dorms armed with machetes, the letter said.
On Friday the SCHR filed a class-action suit in the 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 - where they said people are held for months or years and rats and roaches crawl on people while they sleep and in their food.
People subjected to solitary confinement at Georgia State Prison prisoners frequently experience psychiatric crises and become suicidal, the SCHR said in a news release. A third of all the suicides reported last year in state prisons over a period of 18 months, happened in this prison, according to the SCHR.
Clarke acknowledged understaffing in correctional facilities is a "particularly acute problem."
"Without adequate staff supervision and mental health care, there is an increased likelihood that people experiencing mental health issues may harm themselves or even commit suicide," she said.
Hailey, at the SCHR, said multiple facilities in the state. operate with 70% officer vacancy rates, which she says can result in preventable deaths.
Clark, who leads the Justice Department's civil rights division, underlined DOJ's "commitment" to conduct civil rights probes in prisons across the country.
Last year, the Justice Department sued the state of Alabama over the prevalence of violence among prisoners and staff use of excessive force.
Clark pointed to the department's inquiry into systematic abuse against female inmates at a New Jersey prison, where investigators found women were regularly sexually assaulted by guards and detailed widespread sexual abuse at the facility.
Last month, the DOJ and New Jersey reached an agreement that required the state to implement new safeguards like training as well as and greater supervision at the prison.