Dozens of people were killed in a Georgia prison riot that happened in August 2020. Leaked video showed that prisoners were forced to live in cells that did not have running water or toilets that flush. Conditioners were inhumane. The good news is that a little over a year later, in September 2021, the Justice Department announced a civil rights probe into Georgia state prisons.
Uninhabitable, abusive living conditions that the inmates are forced to endure are believed to be the reason for 40 homicides and countless assaults within the prisons since the start of last year. The investigation will focus on the violence to determine whether the constitutional rights protecting the incarcerated against “cruel and unusual punishment” are being violated, the DOJ said. Another specific focus will be on whether there has been sexual abuse of LGBTQ prisoners in Georgia, either by staff or fellow prisoners.
“Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, we find significant justification to open this investigation now,” Clarke said in remarks on Tuesday.
Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lori Benoit told Forbes that the department “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.”
Photos of bloody prisoners begging for help tell a different story. A lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights claims that men in solitary confinement in at least one prison are held in cells overrun with rats and roaches and permeated with the stench of human waste, since the prison staff refuses to flush toilets. Prisoners can be held in those conditions for months, according to the lawsuit, taking a significant toll on mental health. Conditions are further complicated by “extreme staffing shortages” and high turnover rates that lead to “persistent problems in Georgia,” according to the DOJ.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, Peter Leary, Kurt Erskine and David Estes, Acting United States Attorneys for the Middle, Northern and Southern Districts of Georgia announce on September 14, 2021 that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a state-wide civil investigation into prisons of Georgia. This investigation will focus on harm to prisoners resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff.
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate state prisons to determine whether incarcerated people are subjected to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. Previous investigations show systemic constitutional violations are occurring, and also the root causes of such violations.
The Eighth Amendment of our Constitution is supposed to protect people, even those that are convicted of crimes, and people that are awaiting trial while detained in jails from being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. He said, “to our national shame, there are still instances of grave mistreatment of the very people who need our special concern most, because their confinement makes them so vulnerable.” Unfortunately, the bill signed into law did not change the way that prisons operate.
Over two million people reside in our nation’s prisons and jails. The Justice Department intends to address prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training and the lack of accountability, inadequate supervision and violence, and inmate’s access to necessary medical and mental health care. “The risk of self-harm and suicide is compounded when people are locked down and isolated in solitary confinement without ongoing human interaction. And without adequate policies, training and staff accountability, people in prisons and jails are also at risk of abuse from staff sexual misconduct and use of excessive force. The investigation of Georgia prisons that we are announcing today will continue this important work to protect the rights of incarcerated people. Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for individuals under their supervision. No prisoner’s sentence should include violence at the hands of other prisoners while behind bars.” The DOJ also stated:
In 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide.
There have been a reported 18 homicides so far in 2021.
Reports of countless other violent assaults, including stabbings and beatings, also have emerged from Georgia prisons.
Concerned citizens, family members and civil rights organizations – as well as photographs and videos leaked to social media and through other channels – have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons.
A major riot occurred in one large close security Georgia prison last year, and disturbances reportedly have occurred in other prisons as well.
Extreme staffing shortages and high turnover among corrections officers are persistent problems in Georgia.
We also will continue the work of our existing investigation into whether the State of Georgia adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, or LGBTI, prisoners from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.
The Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division will be joined by career lawyers in all three United States Attorney’s Offices in Georgia in conducting the independent investigation. “The investigation will be independent, thorough, and fair. We have not made, and will not make, any conclusions until our investigation is complete. If our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation, we will provide written notice to the State of Georgia of the violation or violations, along with the supporting facts and the minimal remedial measures. We will seek to work cooperatively with the state to establish solutions to any problems our investigation uncovers.”
The Department of Justice also announced ongoing litigation of conditions in Alabama men’s prisons to address the prevalence of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and staff use of excessive force. Our findings report in that case highlighted how understaffing creates an unreasonable risk of harm.
We are focusing on harm from prolonged solitary confinement in the enforcement of our consent decree in Hampton Roads, Virginia, as well as through our investigations of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the Alameda County Jail and the San Luis Obispo County Jail.
The Alameda County Jail investigation also examines how a lack of community mental health services can lead to unnecessary cycling of individuals through carceral and residential mental health settings and exacerbate problems with care in the jail.
And finally, our recent consent decree regarding the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women requires the State of New Jersey to implement policy, training, accountability, and transparency measures to ensure that women confined there are protected from staff sexual abuse.
The DOJ did not announce anything about investigating Louisiana or California that are commonly known as the “worst in the world” and that also have the highest incarceration rates of any place in the world.