The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday announced a statewide civil rights investigation into Georgia prisons.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the department’s civil rights division, said the investigation will be comprehensive but will focus on “harm to prisoners resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner violence.” It will also look into sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by both prisoners and prison staff.
“Under the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution, those who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in prisons must never be subjected to cruel and unusual punishments,” Clarke said during an online news conference. “We must ensure the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated.”
The Justice Department is committed to trying to address the effects of prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training and the lack of accountability, Clarke said.
Understaffing is a particularly devastating problem, said Clarke, noting that it can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. It can also keep people from being able to get necessary medical and mental health care, she said.
The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by an extensive review of publicly available data and other information, Clarke said. She pointed out that at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide, and there have been a reported 18 homicides so far this year in Georgia prisons. She said there have also been reports of other violent acts, including stabbings and beatings.
"Our investigation will examine whether the State of Georgia adequately protects prisoners held at the close- and medium-security levels from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners, as required by the Eighth Amendment," the Justice Department wrote in a release on Tuesday. "Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, we find significant justification to open this investigation now."
The department's announcement also cited concerns from family members of those incarcerated, as well as a recent riot at a "large close security Georgia prison last year," as reasons to open the investigation.
Should the investigation reveal evidence of systemic injustices at any given institution, the DOJ will notify the entity and propose a series of measures to remedy the problems.
"I am pleased to announce that a team of career civil attorneys from 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 investigation," Clarke added on Tuesday. "The investigation will be independent, thorough, and fair."