Remarks as Prepared
Good morning. I am joined by Peter Leary, Kurt Erskine and David Estes, Acting United States Attorneys for the Middle, Northern and Southern Districts of Georgia.
We are here today to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a state-wide civil investigation into prisons of Georgia. This investigation will be comprehensive, but will focus on harm to prisoners resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner violence. We are also investigating sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff.
We are conducting this investigation pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate state prisons to determine whether incarcerated people are subjected to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. Our investigations have been successful at identifying not only whether systemic constitutional violations are occurring, but also the root causes of any such violations – so that those causes can be fixed and the violations can stop. Our country was founded on high ideals. Under the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution, those who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in prison must never be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments.”
We must ensure the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone – including people who are incarcerated.
In 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act into law, he said, “to our national shame, there are still instances of grave mistreatment of the very people who need our special concern most, because their confinement makes them so vulnerable.” That remains true today.
While this critical federal civil rights law has led to some progress, the urgent need for our work continues. Today, over two million people reside in our nation’s prisons and jails. And people of color are disproportionately represented among them. For example, in Georgia, the percentage of incarcerated people who are Black is nearly twice the percentage of Black residents in the state of Georgia overall. According to data from the Georgia Department of Corrections, the state’s prisoner population is 61% Black though they make up about 32% of the population.
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. Understaffing in correctional facilities is a particularly acute problem. It can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. It can also prevent people from being able to access necessary medical and mental health care. Without adequate staff supervision and mental health care, there is an increased likelihood that people experiencing mental health issues may harm themselves or even commit suicide. The risk of self-harm and suicide is compounded when people are locked down and isolated in solitary confinement without ongoing human interaction. And without adequate policies, training and staff accountability, people in prisons and jails are also at risk of abuse from staff sexual misconduct and use of excessive force.
The investigation of Georgia prisons that we are announcing today will continue this important work to protect the rights of incarcerated people.
Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for individuals under their supervision. No prisoner’s sentence should include violence at the hands of other prisoners while behind bars.
Our investigation will examine whether the State of Georgia adequately protects prisoners held at the close- and medium-security levels from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners, as required by the Eighth Amendment. Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, we find significant justification to open this investigation now.
- In 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide. There have been a reported 18 homicides so far in 2021.
- Reports of countless other violent assaults, including stabbings and beatings, also have emerged from Georgia prisons.
- Concerned citizens, family members and civil rights organizations – as well as photographs and videos leaked to social media and through other channels – have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons.
- A major riot occurred in one large close security Georgia prison last year, and disturbances reportedly have occurred in other prisons as well.
- Extreme staffing shortages and high turnover among corrections officers are persistent problems in Georgia.
We also will continue the work of our existing investigation into whether the State of Georgia adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, or LGBTI, prisoners from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.
I am pleased to announce that a team of career civil attorneys from the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division will be joined by career lawyers in all three United States Attorney’s Offices in Georgia in conducting the investigation. The investigation will be independent, thorough, and fair. We have not made, and will not make, any conclusions until our investigation is complete. If our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation, we will provide written notice to the State of Georgia of the violation or violations, along with the supporting facts and the minimal remedial measures. We will seek to work cooperatively with the state to establish solutions to any problems our investigation uncovers.
We are committed to confronting unlawful and unconstitutional issues inside our nation’s prisons across the country. I’d like to highlight just a few examples of how our cases are seeking to address systemic deficiencies leading to harm to human life, safety and bodily integrity in prisons and jails:
- Our ongoing litigation of conditions in Alabama men’s prisons seeks to address the prevalence of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and staff use of excessive force. Our findings report in that case highlighted how understaffing creates an unreasonable risk of harm.
- We are focusing on harm from prolonged solitary confinement in the enforcement of our consent decree in Hampton Roads, Virginia, as well as through our investigations of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the Alameda County Jail and the San Luis Obispo County Jail.
- Our Alameda County Jail investigation also examines how a lack of community mental health services can lead to unnecessary cycling of individuals through carceral and residential mental health settings and exacerbate problems with care in the jail.
- And finally, our recent consent decree regarding the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women requires the State of New Jersey to implement policy, training, accountability and transparency measures to ensure that women confined there are protected from staff sexual abuse.
Confronting unconstitutional, unlawful and inhumane prison conditions is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. As Nelson Mandela said: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
I now offer the floor to Acting U.S. Attorney Leary who will now offer remarks.