Judge says Georgia should turn over prison documents to federal investigators

AJC file photo

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

AJC file photo

The Georgia Department of Corrections should comply with a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice seeking a multitude of records related to the government’s investigation of violence within the state prison system, a federal judge says in a lengthy report.

The recommendation by Magistrate Judge John K. Larkins III would knock down a six-month effort by the Department of Corrections to avoid turning over everything from investigative files to the identities of former employees — or, in the alternative, doing so only if the DOJ signed a nondisclosure agreement.

The GDC has 14 days to file a written objection. If Larkins’ recommendation is adopted by a district judge, the department will be required to turn over the responsive records within 45 days.

In fighting the subpoena, the GDC has argued that it was protecting sensitive information. However, in a 40-page report issued Wednesday after a June 10 hearing, Larkins noted that the DOJ is authorized to investigate under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and the law, commonly known as CRIPA, contains numerous protections for subpoenaed documents.

“While the court appreciates GDC’s emphasis on making sure that confidential, sensitive information is not disclosed or used for any purpose other than DOJ’s investigation, the examples that it gives are hypothetical, and it has offered no reason or evidence that would lead the undersigned to believe DOJ intends to disclose the information in a manner that risks the security of GDC facilities, employees or inmates,” Larkins wrote.

The judge also discounted the GDC’s point that the DOJ had signed a nondisclosure agreement when it obtained documents in a similar investigation of the prisons in Alabama. One CRIPA investigation shouldn’t necessarily impact another, he wrote.

Joan Heath, the GDC’s chief spokesperson, provided The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a statement noting that Larkins’ ruling isn’t final and that it’s being reviewed by the department’s legal team.

“As stated previously, GDC continues to cooperate with DOJ’s ongoing investigation and will continue to do so,” the statement says. “GDC will certainly comply with any final order entered by the court.”

The DOJ began investigating the GDC in 2016 after a transgender inmate, Ashley Diamond, filed a lawsuit. The focus was on whether the agency had failed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex inmates from harassment, abuse and assault.

Ashley Diamond, the transgender woman who has made national headlines for her legal battle against Georgia's prison system, answers questions during an AJC interview after being paroled in 2015. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Federal investigators renewed and expanded the probe last September in response to reports of intensifying violence involving all GDC inmates.

The DOJ issued its subpoena in December after the GDC declined to turn over the records voluntarily. When the GDC continued to object, offering to comply only with a nondisclosure agreement, the DOJ sought a ruling in federal court.

One of the prisons drawing scrutiny from the DOJ is Pulaski State Prison, the state’s second largest facility for women, where the AJC’s reports of gang violence and extortion have prompted U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff to call for a separate FBI investigation.

The DOJ’s investigation would most likely lead to a report calling for remedial action, while any FBI probe would be aimed at filing criminal charges.

Since broadening its investigation, the DOJ has been conducting interviews, including some at GDC facilities. But if Larkins’ ruling is adopted, it will require the GDC to turn over numerous documents that could shed significant light on the level of violence.

Those records include investigative files relating to homicides, alleged sexual abuse and calls to GDC operations and outside law enforcement since Sept. 1, 2019; information identifying all security, medical, mental health or supervisory personnel who have left the GDC within the past year, and reports from SCRIBE, the agency’s internal data base since Sept. 1, 2019.

In calling the DOJ’s request for former staff “overbroad,” the GDC stated that it loses about 2,000 employees a year, that about 400 of those separations are involuntary and that only two employees have been fired in the last two years for violating prison rape policies, Larkins wrote.

“Further,” he wrote, “the GDC asserts that it would take nearly thirty minutes per employee to search the information that DOJ requested — meaning that it would take nearly 1,000 hours to compile information that appears to have no relevance to DOJ’s investigation.”

As for the SCRIBE reports, the GDC stated that much of the information isn’t relevant to the DOJ investigation and that it would take 2,000 hours to produce it, Larkins’ report said.

However, those arguments didn’t persuade the judge, who ruled that the “broad contours of relevance” require that the material be produced.

Investigative reporter Danny Robbins can be contacted by emailing AJCinvestigations@ajc.com