• Kiana Henley

What is the DOJ Investigating Within GA Prisons?

In the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of Georgia prisons, announced on September 14, 2021, they will investigate whether the state provides “reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.” More broadly, they will examine “conditions of confinement of prisoners” and determine whether Eighth Amendment violations have taken place. The Eighth Amendment ban of cruel and unusual punishment grants rights including but not limited to being adequately protected from inmate-on-inmate and officer-on-inmate violence and being provided medically necessary treatments.

The DOJ has the right to investigate the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and Georgia facilities under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which authorizes the DOJ to examine if “incarcerated people are subjected to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations.” The Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division will work with the Northern, Middle, and Southern Georgia U.S. Attorney’s Offices to pursue this investigation, and while Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, stated that the investigation would be “comprehensive,” they will be looking closely at inmate-on-inmate violence in particular.

This investigation is rooted in the evidence that inmates’ family members, social justice activists and organizations, and the HCRCGA have been advocating around for several years. Clarke noted some alarming data points in her official remarks that mirror what we already know about instances of violence and death in Georgia prisons. In 2020, 26 people died by suspected or verified homicide, and there were 20 suicides in a nine-month period. There have been 18 homicides in 2021 to date, riots over the last two years, and continued violent assaults.

Assistant Attorney General Clarke also mentioned that the DOJ would continue their investigation of instances of sexual assault of LGBTQI+ inmates by other inmates and correctional staff. This previous investigation was opened on February 5, 2016 and examines whether the GDC “adequately protects transgender and gay prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and assault by both staff and other prisoners.”

Building off of this 2016 investigation, the DOJ released a Statement of Interest in April 2021 regarding Diamond v. Timothy Ward, et al. in which the GDC failed to place a transgender woman in a facility that matched her gender identity, failed to protect her from repeated sexual assault by inmates and staff, and refused to provide her with the hormone replacement therapy that she needs. This case is being prosecuted by the Southern Poverty Law Center with the Center for Constitutional Rights and is ongoing.

In her remarks regarding the more recent DOJ investigation of Georgia prisons, Clarke declared the need to not only address constitutional violations but also to determine and address their root causes. She alluded to a few of these that the HCRCGA has monitored closely, including understaffing, poor policy and training, and a lack of oversight and accountability.

We aim to address these root problems by looking to those at the top who influence bad policy and ignore constitutional violations—GDC Commissioner Timothy Ward and Governor Brian Kemp.

Georgia Prison advocates are optimistic about the DOJ’s investigation and will enthusiastically support their efforts toward the goals of removing Timothy Ward as GDC Commissioner and addressing the human rights violations taking place in Georgia prisons.

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