ATLANTA (CBS46) — The United States Department of Justice is launching a statewide civil rights investigation into prisons in the state of Georgia.
The announcement was made by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.
The investigation will focus on harm to prisoners by other inmates from within the prison, as well as violence aimed at gay, lesbian, and transgender inmates by prison staff.
When asked why the investigation was launched now, Clarke said that based on an extensive review of available public documents and resources, the DOJ found "significant justification" to open the investigation immediately.
"We have been looking at Georgia prisons for years," Clarke said. "This is a top priority for the civil rights division."
They said they were able to view several videos on social media showing a problem with both contraband weapons and gang activity in several prisons leading to an uptick in violence.
"No prisoner sentence should include violence from other prisoners," Clarke said during a press conference Tuesday.
The primary goal of the investigation will simply look into if prisoners are having their constitutional rights violated.
"We want to protect the rights of incarcerated individuals," Clark continued.
According to the DOJ, there were at least 26 homicides in Georgia prisons in 2020 and already 18 more this year. They also cited "countless other violent assaults" as reasoning for launching this investigation.
The DOJ also cited "extreme" prison staff shortages and high turnover among corrections officers, calling these shortages an "acute problem" that can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. They went onto say these shortages can prevent adequate medical and mental health care which leads to a higher likelihood of suicide and self-harm.
"Our investigation will be independent, thorough and fair," Clarke said.
Ashley Diamond tells CBS46 she experienced abuse firsthand as an inmate in the Georgia prison system. "What is happening to the people behind the walls of the prison is ridiculous especially when it comes to the LGBT community," Diamond said Tuesday afternoon while calling from inside the Coastal State Prison in Savannah. "What we are talking about is a uniformed and regulated ugly bigotry."
Diamond was originally convicted of burglary and sent to prison. She says as a transgender woman she suffered through a painful period as her hormone medication was denied to in prison and sexual assaults began.
"So many of us are forced into a life of sexual servitude just because we are serving a sentence for a nonviolent crime and its absurd and its disgusting," Diamond said. "I’ve been communicating with the DOJ for years to do something."
Diamond sued the Georgia Department of Corrections and the department ultimately changed its policies on healthcare for transgender inmates. After the ordeal, Diamond said abuse continued from inmates and guards when she was sent back to prison for parole violation.
"Not only were they derelict in their duty to provide me with the correct medical care you were derelict in your duty to protect me as a human being. I was physically raped multiple times. I can’t tell you how many times I was abused I cant tell you how many times I was stabbed and beaten," Diamond told CBS46, adding that she currently fears for her safety in the Savannah prison.
Diamond said she was "elated" to see the DOJ stepping in the investigate other cases like hers.
Atlanta attorney Tyler Schermerhorn represents the family of deceased inmate Bobby Thompson, who committed suicide inside Phillips State Prison last year.
"He had been placed in solitary confinement while having a mental health crisis" Schermerhorn told CBS46. "We just had families coming out of the woodwork telling us not just about instances of self-harm but inmate-on-inmate violence, and you’ve got neglect from security guards."
AAG Clarke said the DOJ would possibly seek a consent decree with the Georgia Department of Corrections seeking changes.