Explainer: The Never-Ending Crises in Georgia’s Prisons

Explainer: The Never-Ending Crises in Georgia’s Prisons
Image courtesy of Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched a joint investigation into the Georgia Department of Corrections’ treatment of LGBTQ+ people in its facilities. Five years later, in 2021, the DOJ announced another investigation into the Georgia DOC. This time around, the investigation’s focus also included the conditions in Georgia’s prisons in general.

Fast forward another year and a half, and the problems were getting worse. Violent assaults and homicides were taking place at some of the highest rates in the state’s history. Suicides had reached an all-time high last year, with nearly 40 a year. And now, Georgia’s prisons find themselves back in the headlines after insects and bed bugs ate a man alive in his jail cell.

Yet if you go to the state’s website, everything in Georgia’s prisons and the DOC is hunky-dory. “The Georgia Department of Corrections protects and serves the public,” the website states, “by managing offenders and helping to provide a safe and secure environment for the state’s residents.” We’ll describe the latest crises below and let you decide if that’s true.

Georgia DOC’s Treatment of LGBTQ+ Prisoners

In April of 2016, Georgia Voice reported that the DOJ and USAO launched a joint investigation into the Georgia DOC and its treatment of LGBTQ+ people after Ashley Diamond filed a lawsuit against the agency. Diamond, a former Georgia prisoner and transgender woman, alleged that Georgia officials denied her medical treatment and allowed other detainees to sexually abuse her during her incarceration in the state.

“Essentially we’re looking at potential violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act … which deals with the constitutional rights of prisoners in institutions like prisons,” John Horn, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, told Georgia Voice at the time.

While he couldn’t go into specifics, Horn made it clear at the time that the focus of the investigation was on abuse in Georgia’s prisons: “What we can say is that we have received some complaints relating to allegations of abuse in Georgia prisons. When we reach critical mass, we decide to open up an investigation.” “All prisoners in Georgia institutions are entitled to serve their time safely,” Horn continued, “especially if physical harm or abuse occurs because of a prisoner’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Image courtesy of fpphotobank at iStock Photos via Getty Images.

The Conditions in Georgia’s Prisons

Unfortunately, the DOJ and USAO’s 2016 investigation didn’t have a deterrence effect because, five and a half years later, the DOJ formally announced another investigation into the Georgia DOC and what it called the “conditions of confinement of prisoners held in Georgia’s prisons.”

That investigation, like the 2016 one, also focused on the treatment of the LGBTQ+ people in the state’s prisons and jails. “The investigation will examine whether Georgia provides prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners,” the announcement explains. “The department also will continue its existing investigation into whether Georgia provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex prisoners reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.”

The Georgia DOC, of course, denied the allegations. “The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence,” Timothy C. Ward, the agency’s commissioner said at the time.

But, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year, the Georgia DOC refused to comply with the DOJ’s subpoenas in that investigation, going so far as to withhold the number of people murdered in the state’s facilities. The DOC reportedly refused to turn over the requested documentation or make staff available for interviews unless the DOJ would sign a nondisclosure agreement, which would, in essence, prevent the conditions in the state’s facilities from becoming public.

Violent Assaults, Homicides and Suicides

Thanks to reporting by organizations like like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the statistics demonstrating just how bad Georgia’s jails and prisons have become are public anyway. The “Update” at the top of this piece from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution illustrates the point in a blunt way: “An unprecedented number of Georgia inmates in 2022 have taken their own lives. In the first 11 months of this year, 34 inmates died by suicide, bringing the total since 2018 to 150. The previous record was 30, set in 2020.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s piece includes several personal stories that put real people next to these statistics. For example, it references Andrew Campbell, a 28-year-old ex-Marine suffering from PTSD, who “attached a bed sheet to the latticework on the window in his cell at Rutledge State Prison and wrapped it around his neck.” Similarly, Amanuel Geberyesus, a man known to be a suicide risk, “was discovered hanging by a bed sheet” a day after a counselor recommended he be placed in a cell without any items that could be used for self harm.

“At Smith State Prison, Christopher Heath was found dead with a belt around his neck after he was locked in a tiny, windowless shower stall in the prison’s segregation unit,” reads another. “His brother alleges he had been kept there for days.”

A year after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published that story, The Appeal published another piece making a similar point: “[T]he conditions inside Georgia prisons have only further deteriorated.” Recognizing the statistics referenced above, The Appeal reported that “these highly publicized incidents are only the most extreme examples of a much broader culture of dehumanization that still pervades GDC.”

Image courtesy of Jason Lawrence via Wikimedia Commons.

Lashawn Thompson’s Tragic Death

It’s almost impossible to conclude that anything has changed since then either. Earlier this month, a 35-year-old man named Lashawn Thompson died in the Fulton County Jail after being eaten alive by insects and bed bugs while waiting for trial on a low-level misdemeanor charge. Fox News published a photo of the disgusting conditions in Mr. Thompson’s cell in this article.

According to this update from Fox News, Mr. Thompson’s death led to the transfer of more than 600 people from the facility as well as an emergency expenditure of $500,000 to address its overcrowding. But it’s also likely to lead to yet another federal investigation into Georgia’s prisons as well.

“What you’re looking at, I think, is not just a deplorable jail cell, but this is a crime scene. This is criminal,” Ben Crump, a high-profile civil rights attorney who represents Thompson’s family said last week. Photos of Mr. Thompson’s cell, released by the family’s local attorney, Michael Harper, included Mr. Thompson’s face and body covered in insects.

The Definition of Insanity

Obviously the takeaway from having crisis after crisis like this is clear: There is a problem in Georgia’s prisons. While these problems aren’t unique to Georgia (as we explained here), the inability of Georgia’s elected officials to make any noteworthy progress in addressing them is. Yet the investigations continue with no meaningful progress in sight.

Nothing changed after the 2016 investigation. Nothing changed after the 2021 investigation. And nothing changed after the record-breaking years of violent assaults, homicides and suicides since then either. Now Georgia officials have to take ownership of the photographs of Mr. Thompson’s bug-infested body as well.

The takeaway and the problem might be clear. But whether things will ever change isn’t. In fact, given Georgia’s track record, it’s likely that what the BBC described as an “insect-infested ‘death chamber’ ” won’t be the last crisis we hear about in Georgia’s prisons.

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