Georgia Prison Crisis Worsens Amid Federal Investigations

More than six years into DOJ probes, the conditions inside Georgia prisons have only further deteriorated.

jail bars and light
Shaun Versey/Flickr

Georgia Prison Crisis Worsens Amid Federal Investigations

More than six years into DOJ probes, the conditions inside Georgia prisons have only further deteriorated.

In September 2021, following years of reports of routine violence and abuse in Georgia prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the state’s detention facilities. It became the second ongoing DOJ probe into the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC), along with an investigation launched in 2016 amid multiple lawsuits alleging that the agency was mistreating LGBTQ prisoners.

Advocates and incarcerated activists saw the additional federal intervention as a long overdue sign that the federal government was taking a rare step toward accountability and oversight inside a state prison system.

But now, nearly a year and half into the most recent DOJ investigation and more than six years into the 2016 probe, the conditions inside Georgia prisons have only further deteriorated. Violent assaults and homicides in these facilities continued at a near-record pace in 2022, and suicides reached a new high, with 34 deaths by suicide occuring in the first 11 months of the year, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. However, local advocacy groups and incarcerated people say these highly publicized incidents are only the most extreme examples of a much broader culture of dehumanization that still pervades GDC.

“The Georgia prison system is in total crisis and is failing,” said BT, an organizer and spokesperson for Georgia Prisoners Speak, an organization run by incarcerated activists. (He asked to use a pseudonym to avoid potential retaliation from GDC.) “The number of deaths has skyrocketed in the last few years, the quality of the food that is served is just below that served to animals, and the quantity wouldn’t keep a child alive.”

Georgia prison officials have allegedly responded to the latest round of scrutiny by stonewalling federal investigators. In a petition filed in federal court last March, the DOJ accused GDC of denying investigators access to facilities and refusing to release even top-line figures about the number of people killed in state prisons. Amid this obstruction, the DOJ has offered almost no public information about where the two probes stand or what action, if any, has been taken or is planned in response.

In interviews with The Appeal, incarcerated sources described GDC as a ship adrift in a deadly storm, without a competent captain or crew, as the DOJ looms—though not very menacingly—in the background.

“Fear among prisoners is at an all-time high,” BT said. “Conditions are primed for mass rioting.”

The GDC did not provide comment by the time of publication. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.

Donate to The Appeal

The slow progress of the investigations is having vast consequences for the nearly 47,000 people incarcerated in GDC’s 34 prisons, 7 percent of whom are in the state’s five women’s facilities. (This number does not include people held in county jails, which are suffering from deep problems of their own.)

Media coverage of Georgia’s prisons from the past five years points to an escalating statewide crisis that has taken many forms beyond the staggering increase in violence and death. Incarcerated women have reported being sexually assaulted by fellow prisoners and prison staff alike. Formerly incarcerated people and their family members have testified about nightmarish hygienic conditions, including inedible food and rodent infestations. Queer and trans prisoners say they’ve been thrown in solitary confinement after reporting sexual assault or other violence, or because they are suffering mental health crises. In some prisons, vulnerable people have been forced to sleep in hallways, shower stalls, or even outside after other prisoners used threats of violence to take over their assigned beds.

In the face of these horrors, the GDC budget ballooned to a new high this year, reaching more than $1.3 billion. The new budget included a $2,000 pay increase for prison guards, but that appears to have done little to address the chronic staffing shortages that advocates and officials say are a primary cause of the crisis. GDC employed approximately 6,900 full-time employees in fiscal year 2021, compared to 9,169 in 2019. Most Georgia prisons have been operating with less than 30 percent of their necessary staff over the past two years, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm that urged the DOJ to launch its 2021 investigation. GDC has also experienced an astronomical 49 percent employee turnover rate. At times, some facilities have had only one officer on duty for every 200 incarcerated people, compared to the federal prison rate of one guard for every 15 people in custody.

Despite these unsustainable trends, advocates note that state- and county-level actors in Georgia have continued to pursue systemic over-prosecution and incarceration, while refusing to use diversion programs and other alternatives that might help lower the prison population. A 2021 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit think tank, noted that the state also continues to incarcerate people for violations that are not crimes.

“Georgia failed to utilize one of the most obvious, and easiest, tools for reducing the prison population—stopping prison admissions for technical violations of probation and parole,” the report says.

“We can’t have only 30 percent of the staff but 200 percent of the number of those imprisoned,” said Page Dukes, a communications associate for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The only answer is to decarcerate.”

“The only answer is to decarcerate.” Page Dukes Southern Center for Human Rights

As conditions continue to deteriorate for incarcerated people in Georgia, it might still be a long time before the DOJ can take concrete action. Under the federal statute governing these probes—known as the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, or CRIPA—federal authorities have to complete a number of steps before they can officially file suit against the GDC. The investigations have to be fully completed before specific, factual allegations of constitution violations can be determined and used as the basis for litigation.

“If and when they sue, they either proceed to trial or settle,” Dukes explained. “Either route would likely end in injunctive relief, which would be a court order directing GDC to take specific steps to correct the constitutional violations.”

It’s hard to predict how much time this process might take, but the recent history of a similar DOJ intervention in Alabama suggests that advocates and prisoners in Georgia have a long wait ahead of them. In 2020, the federal government sued the State of Alabama for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of incarcerated people, based on findings from an investigation started in 2016. The DOJ’s charges cited issues similar to those seen in Georgia: failing to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, failing to protect prisoners from the use of excessive force by security staff, and failing to provide safe conditions of confinement.

But even after the DOJ filed suit, conditions reportedly continued to worsen in Alabama prisons, eventually leading prisoners in all 13 state facilities to launch a strike in 2022. Amid the intense scrutiny caused by the strike, the Alabama Department of Corrections received a funding increase—bringing its budget to more than $600 million dollars, or nearly a quarter of the state’s general fund budget. Alabama is also planning to build two new, 4,000-bed men’s prisons and has sought to divert some $400 million in pandemic aid to help meet the $1.2 billion price tag of these facilities.

As the federal investigations drag on in Georgia, incarcerated people have begun to express cynicism about the DOJ’s ability to improve conditions. In a confidential online group chat, a 28-year-old prisoner told The Appeal that the environment at the Georgia prison where he is incarcerated is worse than it’s ever been.

“I truly hope the investigators are actually trying to see what’s broken,” he said, “but I’m honestly afraid they’ll just rubber-stamp the whole thing and move along to other investigations that bring more headlines and column inches.”

Support The Appeal

If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today.