WASHINGTON, Sept 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday launched a statewide civil investigation into Georgia's prisons, focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence and whether the state is violating inmates' constitutional rights by failing to adequately protect them.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Civil Rights Division said at a news conference that the department would examine whether Georgia was adequately protecting prisoners' constitutional rights and would notify the state of any findings, and work to implement any necessary reforms.
This is not the department's first probe into Georgia prisons. It previously launched an investigation into sexual violence against lesbian, gay and transgender inmates at the hands of staff and other prisoners. That probe remains ongoing, Clarke said.
"No prisoner's sentence should include violence at the hands of other prisoners while behind bars," she told reporters, citing reports of prisoner deaths behind bars and a major riot at one facility last year.
"Our investigation will examine whether the state of Georgia adequately protects prisoners held at the close and medium security levels from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners as required by the Eighth Amendment," Clarke said.
The probe marks the latest in a series of civil rights investigations the department has launched into state and local prisons in recent years.
In August, the department announced it had reached a consent decree with New Jersey to resolve claims that the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women had violated the Constitution by failing to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by staff.
The probe in Georgia was sparked by complaints from civil rights organizations and others who have raised concerns about prisoner safety there, Clarke said.
In 2020, at least 26 prisoners died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide, and 18 have died so far in 2021, she said, adding that footage has been leaked on social media about contraband, weapons and violence in the prisons and that family members and civil rights groups have also raised concerns.
"The Justice Department is committed to seeking to address the devastating effects of prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training, and the lack of accountability," Clarke said, noting that understaffing is a "particularly acute problem."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Berkrot)