ATLANTA (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday announced a statewide civil rights investigation into Georgia prisons, citing particular concern about violence.
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.”
Representatives for the Georgia Department of Corrections and Gov. Brian Kemp did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment on the investigation.
If the investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation, the Justice Department will provide written notice of any violations, along with supporting facts and minimal remedial measures, Clarke said. She added that the department would work with the state to establish solutions.
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. Without adequate mental health care, people experiencing mental health issues may harm themselves or commit suicide, risks that are compounded if they’re locked up and isolated in solitary confinement, she said.
The Justice Department’s investigation was prompted by an extensive review of publicly available data and other information, Clarke said. Among the things considered, she said, were concerns raised by citizens, family members of people in prison and civil rights groups, as well as photos and videos that have leaked out of the state’s prisons that have “highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons.”
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.
Clarke cited the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, signed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, saying it has led to some progress but that “the urgent need for our work continues.”
People of color are disproportionately represented among the nation’s prison population, Clarke said, noting that Black people make up 61% percent of the people held in Georgia prisons but only about 32% of the state’s population. She said investigators would continue a current investigation into whether Georgia adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people held in prisons from sexual abuse by other prisoners and staff.