Justice Dept. to Investigate Georgia Prisons

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The department also announced limits on the use of a policing strategy widely criticized by federal officials.

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has launched an investigation into allegations of unconstitutional abuse of prisoners in Georgia, a comprehensive civil rights investigation that could force the state to perform a federally mandated overhaul.

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The department also separately limited whether and how federal law enforcement officers could use tactics that have been widely criticized for their role in the deaths of black people at the hands of local police, including neck restraints. such as strangulation and an unannounced search for evidence.

The moves, announced on Tuesday, comprehensively address issues of law enforcement and incarceration violence that have become a rallying point for criminal justice advocates and sparked protests and civil unrest across the country.

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The Georgia investigation was inspired by the documentation of violence in prisons across the state. During a riot at Ware State Prison last year, which ran across social media, hundreds of inmates stormed the building, set it on fire and took guards hostage, resulting in damage and innumerable injuries.

At least 26 people died of confirmed or suspected homicide in Georgia prisons in 2020, and 18 murders have been reported this year as well as multiple stabbings and killings.

Kristen Clark, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Department, said, “Under the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, those who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to time in prison are never subject to ‘cruel and unusual punishment. must be given.” announcing the investigation during a virtual news conference.

Ms Clarke said the dangerous conditions in state prisons, including “prostitutes of weapons and open gang activity”, seem to be exacerbated by a number of systemic factors. He cited staff shortages and high employee turnover, policy and training issues, and lack of accountability for misconduct. But she said the department had not reached any conclusions about the allegations it was investigating.

The investigation will focus on prisoner-by-prisoner violence and will include an open investigation by the department into the sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender inmates by staff members and other inmates.

Should investigators in the Justice Department’s Department of Civil Rights and Georgia’s federal prosecutors determine that prisoners are subject to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, the agency can place the state’s Department of Corrections under a consent decree, a federal mandate. Overhaul which is overseen by courts and external monitors.

The Justice Department recently used consent decrees to overhaul state prisons in Virginia and New Jersey.

Last year, it sued Alabama over the state of its prisons, accusing staff members of violating the Constitution by allowing them to develop a systemic culture of excessive force against prisoners. Alabama has fought to be placed under consent decree.

Georgia officials denied on Tuesday that they had systematically violated prisoners’ rights, a determination that is often a precursor to consent decrees.

“The Georgia Department of Corrections remains committed to the protection of all offenders in its custody,” department spokeswoman Lori Benoit said in a statement.

He said the department’s commitment to protection includes “protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.”

The Justice Department also announced a policy that bars federal law enforcement officers from using chokeholds and so-called carotid restraints unless they are authorized to use deadly force. It also limited the circumstances under which federal law enforcement could make undeclared, or so-called no-knock, entries.

The policies only apply to federal officers, so they do not change state and local police regulations.

But they directly address practices that gained notoriety after high-profile episodes that fueled public criticisms of police and their use of force, including the 2014 death of a Staten Island man named Eric Garner. when a police officer put her in a prohibited chokehold. to arrest. Mr. Garner’s cellphone recording of “I Can’t Breathe” catalysed the national Black Lives Matter movement and the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired, although the Justice Department declined to bring civil rights charges against him.

Last year, Louisville police officers fatally shot Breonna Taylor, a black medical worker, during a failed raid on her apartment, helping to cap off months of widespread demonstrations over racial injustice and policing. Whether the authorities had declared themselves in advance was in dispute, investigating the practice of raiding without a knock.

The change in Justice Department policy stems from a review of law enforcement practices led by the deputy attorney general, Lisa O’Monaco.

“It is essential that law enforcement at the Justice Department adhere to a set of standards when it comes to ‘chokeholds,’ ‘carotid restraints’ and ‘no-knock’ entries,” Ms Monaco said in a statement. “This new policy does just that and limits the circumstances in which these technologies can be used.”

Federal officials are generally required to enter a building before knocking, identifying themselves and their purpose, and seeking entry. The Justice Department said he was allowed to depart the practice only if officials had reason to believe that declaring himself could put him in danger.

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