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DOJ opens civil rights probe of Georgia prisons, will eye violence against inmates, LGBTQ prisoners

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In this Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 file photo, an unidentified prisoner on death row stands in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, in Jackson, Ga.

David Goldman | AP

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday said it is opening a statewide civil rights investigation of prisons in Georgia, with a focus on harm against inmates by other prisoners, and the targeting of LGBTQ inmates for sexual violence by prisoners and staff.

The probe comes as prisons in Georgia saw at least 26 people in prisons there dying from confirmed or suspected homicides in 2020, 18 such cases this year, and “reports of countless other assaults,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

She also cited a major riot in one prison last year, and disturbances elsewhere in Georgia’s correctional system.

Clarke said the investigation was motivated by complaints by inmates, family members, and other “stakeholders” such as advocacy groups, as well as by “an extensive review of publicly available information,” including leaked photos showing gang activity in prisons there.

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“We did find sufficient justification to open this investigation,” said Clarke, who spoke at a Zoom press conference with the acting U.S. attorneys who head prosecutors’ offices in all three of Georgia’s federal districts.

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Clarke said the probe will examine whether Georgia prisons are violating the 8th Amendment rights of their inmates. That constitutional amendment bars government authorities from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments” on prisoners.

“This is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department: ensuring lawful and humane conditions in our nation’s jails,” she said.

Clarke said that extreme staffing shortages and high turnover among correctional officers “are persistent problems in Georgia.”

She noted that “without adequate supervision” by prison staff, inmates are at increased risk of harming or killing themselves.

But, Clarke added, “We’ve drawn no conclusions yet. This investigation will allow us to go in and investigate the facts.”

Clarke said that if the team of investigators determines violations by Georgia’s prison system, “we will work with the state to work on mutually acceptable solutions.”

She said the DOJ has “been looking at Georgia prisons for years.”

“We opened an investigation in 2016. And while I can’t comment on the status of an open investigation, we’re continuing the work that we initiated,” Clarke said.

That prior investigation was eyeing the treatment of gay and transgender inmates in Georgia’s correction institutions.

That probe was the first DOJ probe to focus on LGBT inmates.



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