An Investigation of Georgia’s Prisons Offers a Step Toward Accountability

Angel Manuel Ortiz was beaten to death in his prison cell on June 6, 2019, two weeks before he was scheduled to be released from Calhoun State Prison in Morgan, Georgia.

A month later and nearly 200 miles north, William Barnett died from cardiac arrhythmia after being found unresponsive in his “suicide watch” jail cell. The family’s lawyer argues that Barnett had no history of mental illness. He was the father of four children.

“In twenty years doing prison work, I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions in Georgia prisons.”

Then, Eddie Nelson Jr. was killed in his cell at the Muscogee County Jail. The suspected killer told police officers earlier that day that he “felt the need to find a white male to kill” after watching videos of police brutality online. Nelson was serving a short sentence for a probation violation.

These are just three examples of the forty-eight suspected homicides inside of Georgia’s prisons and jails since the start of last year, according to data from the Southern Center for Human Rights. Some advocates are hopeful that a federal investigation into Georgia’s prison conditions will shine a light on these issues. 

“In twenty years doing prison work, I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions in Georgia prisons,” Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in a statement. “The violence, the treatment of people who are ill, and the apathy of those who run the prisons are unconscionable and unacceptable.”

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on September 14 that it is conducting a civil investigation into Georgia’s prisons under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows the DOJ to investigate whether a corrections facility engages in a “pattern and practice” of denying or infringing on the constitutional rights of inmates.

These investigations, which the U.S. Attorney General is allowed to conduct for state and federal prisons but generally not for private prisons, can be initiated when the Attorney General “has reasonable cause to believe” that violations exist.

“Ensuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

Georgia lawmakers began calling for the DOJ to investigate their state prisons in December 2020 after reports by Reuters found that twenty-four inmates had died in the Chatham County Jail—a municipal facility—over the last twelve years.

Advocates are hopeful that the DOJ probe will expose some of the issues incarcerated people face with private health care providers in Georgia’s prisons.

“Georgians have their civil and human rights violated and are subjected to trauma and abuse for years before they are released.”

One report from Reuters identified several contracts between jails and health care providers that did not clearly articulate the standard of care for inmates. Other contracts had clauses that shuffled the liability for inmate health and harm onto the jails rather than the health care provider. 

Bentley Hudgins, a board member of Reform Georgia, a grassroots organization, says cases like this show why private entities shoulder some of the blame for Georgia’s prison conditions.

“There is insufficient medical and mental health care provided to individuals in our prisons,” Hudgins tells The Progressive. “COVID-19 has only worsened what was already a reality in the state’s prisons and introduced an additional risk factor. There has been poor transparency around testing and infection rates of incarcerated individuals, and deaths have continued to rise from both illness and violence.”

In 2009, an article was published in the American Journal of Public Health that found that approximately 40 percent of prisoners suffer from some sort of chronic health condition but do not receive the proper care. Meanwhile, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that one-in-four prisoners do not have health insurance despite having access to both Medicaid and private insurance plans under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“While Medicaid’s role is limited with respect to those who are incarcerated, it plays an important role in the treatment of mental illness and substance use disorders,” a PPI issue brief says.

Hudgins says these conditions prove that prison is “not about rehabilitation.” Rather, “It is a place where Georgians have their civil and human rights violated and are subjected to trauma and abuse for years before they are released.” 

The Georgia prison investigation, the second of its kind to be launched in the Biden era, is happening at a critical time for federal criminal justice reform. The same week that the DOJ announced this probe, it proposed reforms to improve its use of independent monitors in civil settlements and announced a federal ban on “no-knock” warrants and chokeholds.

Also, within the last three months, the DOJ issued five-year and over four-year sentences for two former corrections officers in Louisiana who were responsible for the death of an inmate; indicted a sergeant in Alabama for assaulting inmates; and charged a corrections officer for sexually assaulting women incarcerated in New Jersey.

For Hudgins, the DOJ investigation in Georgia is both “a hopeful step in the right direction” and “a reminder that there is so much more to be done.” He says prisoners in Georgia “have long faced heightened risks of violence, including documented accounts of both physical and sexual abuse, as well as retaliation for reporting such abuses. This cannot be allowed to continue.”