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The DOJ Is Investigating Georgia's Prison System For Civil Rights Violations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Georgia now. That's where the U.S. Justice Department is opening an investigation into Georgia's state prison system because of possible civil rights violations. Officials say staff shortages are leading to violence and sexual abuse, as Lisa Hagen from member station WABE reports.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: The Justice Department says it'll focus on both violence inmates face from other inmates, as well as sexual abuse directed at gay and trans prisoners.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is with DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

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KRISTEN CLARKE: 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.

HAGEN: She says her office has also seen countless reports of stabbings and assaults. In previous years, Georgia had built a reputation for leading the way in prison reforms in the South. The Justice Department's investigation now comes as some facilities are experiencing what Clarke calls devastating staffing shortages.

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CLARKE: It can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. It can also prevent people from being able to access necessary medical and mental health care.

HAGEN: In a lawsuit filed last week by the Southern Center for Human Rights, it's alleged correctional officer vacancies are higher than 70% in one Georgia prison. Inmates there say special isolation cells are unsanitary, vermin infested and often unmonitored.

Here's acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Peter Leary.

PETER LEARY: Our criminal justice system must allow wrongdoers to serve their sentences in a safe and civilized environment. In fact, that's a constitutional guarantee.

HAGEN: Assistant Attorney General Clarke says the Justice Department began an investigation into Georgia prisons in 2016. She couldn't comment on its status, and there have been no public updates on the Civil Rights Division's work until now. Georgia's Department of Corrections says it's cooperated with the Justice Department and denies it's violated prison or civil rights.

For NPR news, I'm Lisa Hagen in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL ZEFFIRA SONG, "THE DESERTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.