(CNN) -- The US Justice Department on Tuesday announced a statewide investigation into prisons in Georgia, focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff.
Kristen Clarke, who leads the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, said the investigation will focus on possible civil rights violations.
Clarke said the Justice Department found "significant justification" to open this investigation.
"For example, 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," Clarke said. "Reports of countless other violence, 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 linked to social media and other channels have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons," Clarke added.
Clarke also noted that more than 2 million people reside in prisons and jails across the country, 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, so they make up about 32% of the population," Clarke said.
The investigation will also address the devastating effects of "prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training, and then the lack of accountability," Clarke said.
"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."
"No prisoner's sentence should include violence at the hands of other prisoners while behind bars," Clarke said. "Our investigation will examine whether the state of Georgia adequately protects prisoners held at the (low) and medium security levels from physical harm, at the hands of other prisoners, as required by the Eighth Amendment."
The Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment.
Federal law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, authorizes the Justice Department to investigate state prisons "to determine whether incarcerated people are subject to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations," Clarke said.
"While this critical federal civil rights law has led to some progress, the urgent need for our work continues today," Clarke said.
Last month, the Justice Department and the state of New Jersey announced a proposed consent decree to institute major changes at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women following a two-year investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.
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