ATLANTA — The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday it has opened a statewide investigation into conditions inside Georgia’s prisons.
The investigation will examine whether the state provides prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.
The agency also will continue an existing investigation into whether Georgia provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other prisoners who identify with the LGBTQ community reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.
“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 was sparked by complaints from civil rights groups and others who have expressed concerns about inmate safety.
Clarke said at least 26 prisoners died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide last year, and 18 have died so far in 2021.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., also raised concerns about Georgia prisons earlier this year during a Judiciary Committee hearing into President Joe Biden’s nomination of Merrick Garland to serve as attorney general.
Specifically, Ossoff cited the treatment of prisoners at the South Fulton Jail. He read from a plaintiff’s brief in a federal lawsuit against the facility filed by a nonprofit organization.
“The cells were covered in bodily fluids, rust, and mold,” Ossoff read from the brief. “In these conditions, the inmates deteriorated, leaving them incoherent, screaming unintelligibly, laying catatonic, banging their heads against walls, and repeatedly attempting suicide.”
Ossoff went on to urge then-nominee Garland to make securing the human rights of incarcerated Americans a top priority.
Clarke said the new investigation is the Justice Department’s second into prison conditions in Georgia. The agency launched an investigation into sexual violence against lesbian, gay and transgender inmates at the hands of staff and other prisoners, which remains ongoing, she said.
All three U.S. attorney’s offices in Georgia said they would cooperate with the probe.
“Individuals sentenced to prison in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities deserve to be treated humanely,” said Kurt R. Erskine, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
“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.”
The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached immediately for comment.