Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Georgia has refused to give the U.S. Department of Justice documents it subpoenaed for its investigation of the state’s prisons, withholding even a basic accounting of how many inmates have been murdered, the federal government says in the first court filing stemming from the probe.
In a petition filed March 28 in U.S. district court in Atlanta, the federal government asks that a judge force the Georgia Department of Corrections to drop a series of demands for releasing the documents, including a requirement that the Department of Justice sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The GDC is also denying the DOJ access to prisons for site visits or interviews with inmates or prison staff unless it signs an NDA, the government petition states.
“GDC’s numerous unsupported objections to the subpoena are delaying the department’s investigation into potential constitutional violations in GDC’s prisons,” DOJ lawyers wrote.
GDC spokesperson Joan Heath said the DOJ is seeking confidential material that could threaten the safety and wellbeing of prison staff and inmates.
“GDC will provide DOJ with the requested information once DOJ agrees to take the appropriate precautions with these documents,” Heath said in an email. “In the interim, GDC cannot and will not forfeit the safety and security of our staff and offenders.”
The back and forth between lawyers for the DOJ and the GDC offers a first glimpse at how the investigation, now six months old, is unfolding, at least at the outset, as a contentious battle over records.
The Department Justice announced in September that it had formally launched an investigation of the Georgia prison system focusing on inmate-on-inmate violence. However, according to the court filing, the system has in fact been under investigation by the DOJ since 2016.
The earlier investigation focused on whether the state was protecting gay, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault, and the state turned over more than a thousand documents with no strings attached, according to the DOJ. But now, with the expanded probe, the state is taking a different posture, and it has handed over only a “fraction” of the requested records, the government’s petition says.
While the GDC has turned over “some blank form documents, a few organizational charts” and other documentation related to its facilities, it has provided no incident reports, no documents or data related to homicides or other acts of violence and no documents about affected inmates or staff, the petition says.
The Department of Justice issued the subpoena on Dec. 14 after the Department of Corrections declined to an earlier request to provide records voluntarily, the DOJ says.
The government specifically notes in its petition that the GDC has refused to provide the DOJ with access to documents regarding homicides in the state’s prisons even though such an accounting, crucial to the investigation, wouldn’t require the use of confidential information.
The filing points out that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using public records, was able to identify 53 inmates who died as result of homicides in GDC facilities from January 2020 to November 2021, and that the Department of Corrections itself issued press releases identifying inmate deaths suspected to be homicides before it ended the practice in 2021.
The AJC has since updated its data to show that 57 inmates have been murdered in GDC facilities in the last two years. That is almost triple the total of 21 for 2018 and 2019.
The Department of Corrections contends that turning over records requires a nondisclosure agreement because leaks could jeopardize prison security or the integrity of pending investigations. According to the GDC, the DOJ agreed to a similar NDA as part of an ongoing investigation of conditions in Alabama prisons.
The law firm representing the GDC, Maynard, Cooper & Gale, is also representing the Alabama Department of Corrections in its case with the DOJ, and the lead attorney in both cases is William Lunsford, who also serves as special counsel to the Correctional Leaders Association .
The DOJ argues that an NDA is unnecessary because by law the government must adhere to regulations relating to privacy, particularly in regard to health and medical information. Moreover, it notes that it had no issues arise from the documents the GDC provided during the earlier phase of the investigation.
The GDC has also said it is withholding information because the DOJ has failed to disclose a detailed basis for the investigation, according to the government petition.
On that point, the DOJ said it can’t provide privileged information and that its only obligation is to provide conclusions at the end of an investigation.
The state’s stance drew criticism Tuesday from Terrica Redfield Ganzy, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Much of the information being withheld under the guise of ‘privacy’ is already publicly available to anyone who seeks it,” Ganzy said in an email to the AJC. “To stall, obstruct, and obfuscate the DOJ’s investigation into these failures — while people continue to die inside — is atrocious.”
Investigative journalist Danny Robbins can be contacted by emailing AJCinvestigations@ajc.com
For its widening investigation into conditions in Georgia prisons, the Department of Justice subpoenaed various records. These are among those being sought:
Policies, handbooks and training materials
Documents related to staffing
Identities of staff fired or placed on leave
GDC budget documentation
Documents about gang and security threat group membership
IDs of prisoners in protective custody, at risk of suicide or sexual victimization
Incident reports related to homicides and other acts of violence
Investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2015 have revealed pervasive problems in Georgia correctional facilities that have jeopardized the health and safety of both staff and inmates. Recent stories have detailed how the prison system is now in crisis, with spiking murder and suicide rates at men’s facilities and sexual assaults and other brutal violence at women’s facilities.
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