ATLANTA — The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday it has opened a statewide civil investigation into conditions of the confinement of prisoners held in Georgia’s state prisons.
More than 40 suspected or confirmed homicides have been reported in Georgia state prisons since early 2020.
According to a press release from the DOJ, the investigation will examine whether Georgia's 35 Georgia Department of Corrections facilities provide prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners. The department also will continue its existing investigation into whether Georgia provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex prisoners reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff, the statement said.
“Ensuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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. 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 comes following a slew of complaints from groups expressing concerns about jail conditions. Ga. Sen. Jon Ossoff is one lawmaker who urged DOJ earlier this year to investigate jail conditions, particularly after complaining about conditions at South Fulton Jail.
In an emailed statement following the announcement of the DOJ investigation, Ossoff recalled a lawsuit brought against the South Fulton Jail that stated the cells were covered in bodily fluids, rust and mold. The conditions cause inmates to deteriorate, "leaving them incoherent, screaming unintelligibly, laying catatonic, banging their heads against walls and repeatedly attempting suicide," Ossoff quoted from court documents.
Ossoff said the plaintiff in that lawsuit was referring to the solitary confinement of women with severe psychiatric disorders in the South Fulton Jail, though not unique to that facility.
“Individuals sentenced to prison in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities deserve to be treated humanely,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine for the Northern District of Georgia, in the DOJ news release. “Our office is committed to ensuring state prisoners are safe while serving their sentences. We look forward to working cooperatively with the Georgia Department of Corrections to ensure the safety of all individuals in its prisons.”
Valdosta State Prison is one of the 35 prisons being investigated. Previous reporting by the Valdosta Daily Times revealed that more than a dozen inmates have died in the prison or as a result of inmate fighting since 2017. The report indicates at least eight inmates died after a fight, four by suspected suicide and two found unresponsive in their cells.
Two inmate deaths at Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville this year have been attributed to murder, according to The Union Recorder.
“Prison conditions that enable inmates to engage in dangerous and even deadly activity are an injustice, jeopardizing the lives of detainees, staff members and other corrections personnel,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary for the Middle District of Georgia, where the two prisons lie. “Our local law enforcement and corrections partners, with whom we work with closely each and every day, are indispensable to our united goal of achieving a safer Georgia for all. Under the leadership of the department’s Civil Rights Division, we look forward to collaborating with our state partners to address our mutual concern for safety in the corrections system.”
The justice department noted in the press release that no conclusions have been reached regarding allegations in the investigation and the investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, known as CRIPA; The department has conducted CRIPA investigations of many correctional systems, and where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms, the department stated.
“This investigation is an example of our office’s commitment to stamping out violence in our district, no matter where it is found, no matter who the victim is,” said Acting U.S. Attorney David H. Estes for the Southern District of Georgia. “We look forward to working with the State of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and our counterparts in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern and Middle Districts of Georgia to further our shared mission to keep correctional facilities safe for the sake of our community, the prisoners housed there and the dedicated staff who work there.”
The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is conducting this investigation jointly with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Georgia. Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the department via phone at (844) 401-3736 or by email at Community.GeorgiaDOC@usdoj.gov.