ATLANTA — The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced an investigation into violence and conditions inside Georgia prisons.
“We must ensure the inherent dignity of everyone, including people who are incarcerated,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division. She said the inquiry would focus on violence among the incarcerated, understaffing issues and abuse of inmates who are gay, lesbian, transgender or otherwise identify as members of the LGBTQ community.
The investigation follows calls for federal intervention by lawmakers, nonprofits, activists and loved ones of people in Georgia prisons.
“The Justice Department is committed to seeking to address the devastating effects of prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training and the lack of accountability,” Clarke said, adding that the agency hasn’t made any final decisions about Georgia prisons yet.
The Georgia Department of Corrections didn’t immediately respond to news of the investigation, which will be focused at facilities that are medium security or higher.
Understaffing, a persistent issue at prisons across Georgia, can lead to inadequate supervision and violence, Clarke said, as well as prevent inmates from accessing necessary medical and mental health care.
Data from the state says 29 people died of suicide while held in Georgia prisons in 2020. That was nearly triple the total in 2017 and gave Georgia one the highest rates in the nation.
Since the start of 2020, Clarke said Georgia prisons have seen 44 suspected or confirmed homicides.
The investigation seeks to answer if the state is doing enough to protect the people in its custody.
“Without adequate policies, training and staff accountability, people in prisons and jails are also at risk for sexual misconduct and use of excessive force,” said Clarke.
Dramatic staffing shortages have spread across the state’s prisons since the pandemic began. The coronavirus tore through the prisons, where social distancing can be difficult, and people held by the Department of Corrections repeatedly accused the agency of violating COVID protocols. Guards got sick along with the men and women they watched over. Some guards found the stress too much and quit. Others grew too afraid.
“No extra soap. No hand sanitizer. No hot water,” was how the wife of a man serving time at Dodge State Prison described conditions during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020. Fearing reprisal against her husband, she did not want her identity revealed.
“They are playing Russian roulette with everyone’s lives,” said Kimberly Williams, whose husband was nearing his sentence’s end at Montgomery State Prison as the pandemic took hold.
The state says 93 prisoners and four staffers have died of COVID-19, though critics say those numbers are surely low.
In one harrowing 2020 riot at Ware State Prison, people there to serve sentences and people there to work alike feared for their lives as a group of prisoners overtook the grossly outnumbered staff.
“The reason for my resignation is we are too short staffed to safely run the prison,” Danyelle Campos, who had been a guard there for nine months but wasn’t on duty during the riot, wrote in her resignation letter days later. “Too many officers are being put in unnecessary risk and nothing is being done.”
Reports of squalid living conditions have plagued the Georgia Department of Corrections. Photos and videos regularly leak online of moldy and discolored food reportedly served as fresh, as well as filth all over and blood-splattered inmates asking for help.
On Aug. 11, state lawmakers probing allegedly inhumane conditions at Arrendale State Prison, Georgia’s largest women’s prison, were barred from entry.
All three U.S. attorneys in the state said they would take part in and support the investigation, which they said would seek to ensure people behind bars are treated humanely and that no one, guards included, is in danger.
“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.
Also Tuesday, the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has repeatedly blasted the state for prison conditions, accused the Department of Corrections of contributing to suicides at Georgia State Prison. In a federal lawsuit, the nonprofit said at least 12 inmates died of suicide between September 2019 and May 2021 at the Reidsville prison where solitary confinement is extreme and conditions are horrid with rats and roaches crawling on people when they sleep.
“Conditions at GSP have long been abysmal, but in the last two years, they have deteriorated past the point of constitutional crisis,” spokeswoman Hannah Riley said in a news release.
The Department of Corrections also didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.
The Southern Center, meanwhile, welcomed the federal investigation.
“We are so grateful to the DOJ for heeding our call and recognizing the human rights crisis that is unfolding every day in Georgia prisons,” said Sara J. Totonchi, the executive director. “This is a significant step in our ongoing struggle for accountability for the lives that have been lost and for the people who continue to suffer behind the walls.”